Media and the new science of ‘Stadiumology’

As the governing party, the ANC is well accustomed to having its every move, utterance, action (or inaction), statement (or silence) held up to the microscope of public opinion.

When you are the governing party, strident criticism is also to be expected, and is par for the course. No ruling party can afford to be insensitive to reading the temperature of public opinion.

So it was to be expected that the droves of journalists who descended on Nelson Mandela Bay Metro earlier this month to attend the launch of the ANC’s 2016 Local Government Election Manifesto would be far less interested in the contents of the Manifesto itself, which they would ‘unpack’ in a tiny graphic tucked into their newspapers a week later.

As the old journalistic adage goes, they were after “Man Bites Dog” stories; who was sidling up to who in the bars downtown, sound-bites of sideswipes being taken at the leadership, who was wearing what (and the cost thereof), and of course, the number of empty seats at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on the day of the launch.

At a time when the ANC has itself repeatedly acknowledged that this will be one of the most tightly contested elections since democracy; it was to be expected that the turnout at the rally would be called into question by elements of the media: given the seeming obsession in certain media quarters with calling rallies ‘the barometer of public sentiment’ against the governing party.

What has however unexpected was just now much the issue of empty seats at the stadium would become an issue – dominating the news agenda for days.

Commentator after commentator was wheeled out onto national television to extrapolate on what these no-shows meant for the future of the governing party.

In column after column the words of ANC officials explaining the reasons for the low-turnout were dissected, taken apart, and rubbished. The ANC is long accustomed to the commentariat and intelligentsia in South Africa greeting anything the ANC says or does with scorn, cynicism and mockery.

This preoccupation with stadium seat-counting at ANC events, and using this to extrapolate on the perceived decline of the organisation has been going on since 1994.

It is the new science of ‘stadiumology.

We also saw it at play during the DA’s rally last weekend, as journalist crowed about how full the medium-sized Rand Stadium was: again seemingly extrapolating these numbers into an indication of support nationally. It is expected the same will be done at the EFF’s rally this weekend. Whether this will translate to numbers at the polls remains to be seen.

Stadiumology says far more about its proponents, than about the ANC, which continues to enjoy the support of the majority of South Africans who have elected us to govern in successive elections since democracy.

Since the ANC came to power with an overwhelming public mandate, commentators have been applying Stadiumology to our rallies. And history has shown that stadiumologists have a knack for getting things horribly wrong.

After all, it was many of them who confidently ‘predicted’ that the ANC would lose several metros in the last municipal election. After all, it is many of them who have been ‘confidently predicting’ that President Jacob Zuma would be soon forced to vacate the Presidency virtually every week since he took office.

Stadiumology took a bizarre turn earlier this week, on Freedom Day.

This was of course the day that the newly formed People’s Assembly would mobilise the masses to rise up against the ANC. Upon its formation, it was similarly “confidently predicted” that this so-called grassroots mobilisation campaign enjoyed the support of hundreds of thousands of South Africans fed up with the ANC and its President.

The only problem is the marches scheduled at various locations didn’t materialise. This confidently predicted groundswell of dissent didn’t show itself.

Coincidentally this was on the same day that President Zuma addressed capacity crowds at a stadium in Giyani in Limpopo, which was reported on, but interestingly, no turnout numbers cited in the reporting.

The journalists who showed up to cover the ‘People’s marches’ had clearly instructed their camera crews to do long, slow panning shots to bulk up the handful of people gathered.

This avalanche of a People’s Assembly only managed to draw in a couple of hundred people at all its locations on Freedom Day. There was no hashtag and with it no chance of trending.

This in itself is nothing extraordinary, given that it is a relatively new movement. What was striking however is that the disciples of stadiumology couldn’t be found on our television screens that night to dissect and pick apart the reasons for the spectacular failure of the People’s Assembly marches.

Without even a hint of irony, some march organisers told broadcast journalists the low turnout could be attributed to, inter alia, that “people support us, but they’re just lazy.” Another suggested that their invisible army of supporters had gonebraaing instead. Yet another tried to blame it on the police ‘ordering them to disperse’ though no evidence was produced of this. And of course, one organiser blamed it on “poor logistics.”

Contrast this with the open mockery the ANC was subjected to after the Manifesto Launch, as stadiumologists decried what they called ill discipline in ANC ranks, suggesting that our members chose the beaches of Port Elizabeth over the rally.

If media conducted any interviews with ANC officials who explained our logistical challenges, it was only so they could ridicule the ANC.

The derision with which the ANC was treated in the public space after the Election Manifesto Rally, in contrast with the kid gloves accorded other opposition parties and anti-ANC movements exposes the bankruptcy of public discourse in South Africa.

With few exceptions, most media devoted scant space to unpacking the actual Manifesto: which outlines our plans ahead of the August poll.

Stadiumologists won over real analysts. Stadiumology triumphed over dispassionate, fact-based reporting.

Luckily the South African public can see that despite their best efforts to secure preferential treatment by the media, these so-called People’s movements appear to be a form of astroturfing.

They may claim to represent the masses of our people, but it seems they are anonymous, mainly white, and it appears, as their own organisers say, they are too “lazy” to attend their own marches.

These campaigns which pop up from time to time, make a number of claims; chiefly among them that they are grounded in a wave of popular discontent directed at the ANC and in particular, its leadership.

Though this claim is untested, given the amount of space accorded these campaigns in media, it would be easy to assume, incorrectly, that we are witnessing a phenomenon that will soon engulf the country.

But if the number of lacklustre marches convened in the backyards of a number of cities is anything to go by, the campaign has yet to harness mass-based support.

That said, the likes of the People’s Assembly will not be denied their right to free speech and to assembly. It is of course thanks to the ANC that they enjoy such freedoms.

The French writer Amin Maalouf writes of ‘intelligent dissent’ in his book “In the name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, and offers an insight into why some criticism is accepted by those whom it is directed against, and others fail to find fertile ground.

“In general,” he writes, “if you treat another with hostility and contempt, your slightest adverse remark, whether justified or not, will be seen as a sign of aggression, much more likely to make him unapproachable than to persuade him to change for the better.”

“Conversely, if you show someone friendship, sympathy and consideration, not merely superficially but in a manner that is sincere and felt to be so, then you may allow yourself to criticise with some hope of being heard.”

Countries are not built shouting from the sidelines. And they are certainly not built milling around Company Gardens in Cape Town on a public holiday, soft drinks in hand, waiting for someone to tell you to shout “Zuma Must Fall” so you can finally go home and braai.

The African National Congress (ANC) owes its position to an overwhelming public mandate – and we are not intimidated by stadiumology and its warped reasoning.

In due course, the polls will be the decider: and we will see whether the number of people attending a rally really do point to a decline in the massive support we enjoy as the governing party.

We encourage all South Africans to engage with us publicly and rationally, instead of slapping up billboards in city centers under the cover of darkness.

CDE. ZIZI KODWA IS ANC SPOKESPERSON

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