Little Stan Greenberg is Dead
South African political party, the DA, pivots its election campaign around claiming Nelson Mandela. Who came up with this?
A dear friend and former colleague, Andy Davis, used to giggle at the sight of the American pollster, Stan Greenberg, and I rushing through the hallowed halls of Shell House (the ANC’s former headquarters) together and talking numbers and strategy. He’d mock me, I like to think is a comradely way, about being “Little Stan Greenberg.” For those who know us both, Andy was not referring to physical stature, but to the relationship that the two of us had. Stan was one of my mentors. I delighted in learning from him, his generosity as a teacher and, yes, I was embarrassingly content in being regarded as his Robin.
How we would hold our breaths, me and Stan, when Madiba (Nelson Mandela) would take his glasses off his face and lay them down carefully upon the lectern from which he was addressing a crowd. Would he go off message? Would he unweave our tautly knit strategy? He invariably did. And if truth be told, his off-the-cuff remarks were always so much more interesting and inspired than what the office placed before him. A speech he gave in Gauteng called on ANC activists to deliver more than a two-thirds majority! “Why limit ourselves,” he exclaimed to roars of approval and in sheer disregard for the polls that told us the ANC shouldn’t come across as arrogant. I thought of that the other day when JZ (the South African president) reiterated Madiba’s call from a decade and a half ago that the ANC aspire to 100% in 2014. My pollster Pavlovianism was annoyed that JZ made the call. Even more than in Madiba’s time, the ANC should not display a lust for power, for the absolute power resonant in that figure. Be unpresumptuous, humble servants of the people, my pollster brain urged. Or, at least be seen to be that. Ja ne. This world of pollsters where optics trump substance, and the performance prevails over the deed.
Indeed, over the years I evolved an activist’s disdain for polling in its contribution to the politics of the sign, of spectacle over substance and message über alles. Polling’s effects sucked out whatever honesty was left in politics. The transnational regime of pollsters helped forge a politics of the centre and constrain aspirations to fundamental change. Variations of “better lives for all” manifested across the globe. The politics and policies undergirding those lofty slogans encouraged its opposite.
Having said this though, my Little Stan Greenberg heart broke when I read that the big guy is working for South Africa’s Democratic Alliance for the election in 2014. In particular, he is focusing on the winnable Gauteng province, my province. Many of my professional competencies were nurtured by him. The big guy even historicized me in a book he wrote on lessons from various campaigns he’d worked on. I should’ve known though from that book that there was trouble on the horizon –- besides the various dubious campaigns that he has worked on, I am to be found in the index buoyed between “Lekota, Terror” and “Lewinsky, Monica.”
Anyway, the press release on Politicsweb announcing that the big guy has crossed the floor to the DA oozes the grammar of the pollster. I can see each word, each sentence carefully formulated to maximize its voter outreach potential. For a start, the headline tells us that “Mandela’s former pollster (is) to work with the DA”.
The big guy was employed by the ANC to work on our campaign –- not Mandela. But we all know that the DA strategy thus far has been to usurp the legacy of Mandela, to claim ownership of him as against his continued affiliation with the ANC. The press release talks about the Mandela-era ANC which creates the perception that the current ANC has abandoned Madiba’s vision. I see the big guy’s evolution of message that he must have heard over and over again in focus groups – “jobs for people, not just jobs for the leaders” – that the ANC is distant from the people, has lost its connection. And, by implication, the DA is the party to pick up the spear so’s to speak. Except that the DA doesn’t do spears. Their methods of subjugation are ever more subtle. And, I mean, I understand how imperialist wars can be spun into ‘wars on terror’ or the brutalization of innocents can be invoked as ‘collateral damage’ or how rape at my big guy’s alma mater (Yale) is reconstrued as ‘non-consensual sex’, but how on earth is the DA ‘progressive’? Could it be the views on labour deregulation or toilets for blacks or its notions on meritocracy in the context of centuries of colonialism? Or could it be the white male cabinet in the Western Cape that alerts us to a progressive politics? I wonder if my big guy remembers our anger and gloom when we were confronted with the DA’s 1999 election campaign – “Fight Back”? We understood it then as pandering to racism for the sake of expanding a vote share. We saw it, along with most other South Africans, as a “Fight Black” campaign where a new language of racism had emerged disguised in terms palatable to liberal democracy.
Well, it’s also sort of ironic that when Stan and I worked on the 1999 election campaign there was a discernible sense of distance between the ANC and its broad constituency, that was the ANC of the Mandela-era, but together (yes, we like that word), together we figured out a way to talk through that distance. While we are reminiscing about election campaigns past and past eras of greatness, we should also consider how Madiba’s preferred slogan for the 1994 election was “Sekunjalo ke nako” –- “Now is the time”. But Madiba lost the fight for that slogan. More ANC NEC members argued against the possible misinterpretation of that slogan; that whites would regard it as a rallying cry for payback for their past ill-deeds. Instead, Madiba had to be convinced by the majority of NEC members that “A better life for all” encapsulated a call for unity, togetherness and national solidarity.
When the DA, abetted by the big guy, makes a claim to Mandela they are making a claim against the present. It is an approach that panders to sentiment and shallow gestures to a time gone by. It is quite brilliant in that South Africa’s apartheid past is rendered obsolete and the past that matters is the time of Mandela’s rule. In this way, we don’t have to remember the National Party that together with the Democratic Party formed the Democratic Alliance. And neither do we have to recall Madiba except in the haze of nostalgia.
Anyway, my guru has left me. And that makes me sad. Little Stan Greenberg began withering away some time ago, to be fair — partly for professional and partly for personal reasons. But now, Little Stan Greenberg has finally died, a relatively obscure death, but a violent one nonetheless, crushed under the weight of troubling political choices.