While the media hammers the ANC, it is unclear if voters will be persuaded to switch loyalties, writes Hajra Omarjee in Business Day.

Hajra Omarjee writes in Business Day:

POLITICAL insiders and analysts are watching with interest what influence the media will have on voting trends in the coming general elections.

While the African National Congress (ANC) has faced a barrage of bad publicity, the Democratic Alliance (DA) has an advertising purse of about R60m and the Congress of the People (COPE) has been wooing the media for some months now.

April 22 will mark arguably the most important poll since 1994, with the 23-million strong electorate having to decide which party and leader best represents its interests for the next five years.

In the run-up to the ballot, it is fast becoming clear that this poll is about ANC president Jacob Zuma’s candidacy, more than anything else. With Zuma as the clear frontrunner, the leaders of opposition parties spend much of their time declaring that the ANC leader is unfit to hold office, in an attempt to weaken the party’s majority.

To add to the ANC’s woes, a recent Media Tenor survey found that the SABC’s coverage of Zuma was negative. At face value this does not bode well for the party, as the public broadcaster is the primary source of news for most people.

While some ANC leaders believe the SABC is pushing an agenda and that its political opponents can only make the headlines by attacking Zuma, the ruling party has itself stumbled from one public relations nightmare to the next. The ANC’s failure to get its house in order has led to bad press over Zuma’s legal wrangle over corruption charges, ANC spokesman Carl Niehaus’s confession that he is a serial fraudster, damning reports about President Kgalema Motlanthe’s personal life, ANC Youth League president Julius Malema’s public gaffes, and questions about where former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki’s loyalties lie. And that is just in the past few months.

Also, a recent Markinor survey found that less than half of ANC supporters think Zuma is innocent of corruption.

The effect of this on the electorate is yet to be assessed. What is evident is that the ANC has rallied around the media’s alleged bias, and has sought to paint a picture of Zuma as the victim of a political conspiracy. At face value this is paying off. The ANC has seen record crowds attend rallies, in scenes not witnessed since 1994.

But these rallies are often played down by the media.

If one believes what is written in the media, the DA will secure the largest chunk of votes in the Western Cape, and COPE will threaten the ANC’s control in the Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, the North West, Gauteng and Limpopo.

It is also widely supposed that the Inkatha Freedom Party (which secured 7% of the vote in the 2004 elections) and the Independent Democrats (which has set its sights on securing 1-million votes in this election) cannot be ruled out.

However, should the ANC maintain its dominance at the polls, it remains unclear how political hacks and some analysts will explain their assessment of the political climate.

“Politics is about people … I think they (journalists) are too used to talking to each other and not used to listening to citizens enough. The media are not good at working out what the voters’ concerns are. It’s more about the media’s concerns,” Steven Friedman, a political analyst at the University of Johannesburg, says.

The Media Monitoring Project’s William Bird goes a step further.

“Most journalists don’t even know how the president and premiers are elected. Only when you understand the system can you explain it,” Bird says.


Both Bird and Friedman believe that the news agenda of mainstream media at any given time is also what is reflected on vernacular radio stations and in community newspapers. “Lower-income people are very aware of the national debate, and are therefore pretty informed. This election is about whether you think Zuma is a hero or a villain,” Friedman says. He believes that the media will not have a major effect on the electorate.

“South Africans know what their political values are. The entire media could go over to the DA, and it would not make a big difference to the DA vote,” Friedman says.

However, he says the media can influence people’s choices within certain camps. “I take the example of the New National Party vote, which has swung to the DA.”

His argument raises questions over whether the ANC’s core constituency sees COPE as a faction of the party. “In this election there is uncertainty over the swing vote,” Friedman says.

While ANC insiders believe that the party’s core constituency distrusts the media, it remains unclear if the good publicity COPE has received will influence the electorate.