• Mmusi Maimane addresses the state of the nation debate on Tuesday. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

  • President Jacob Zuma listens to the state of the nation debate in Parliament on Tuesday. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

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IN A clever piece of political marketing all members of the Democratic Alliance (DA) wore a large circular badge that read "8.3-million jobless", as they sat opposite the African National Congress (ANC) for President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address last week.

Prior to that, high above dignitaries making their way up the parliamentary precinct’s red carpet, the party unveiled a banner from its third-floor offices in the Marks Building, which read, "Don’t forget the 8.3-million unemployed South Africans".

Twice during the endless interruptions that defined the opening hour of the president’s address, DA leader Mmusi Maimane, badge on proud display, rose to use the opportunity to reiterate the party’s jobless message. "Can we proceed," Maimane said on the second occasion, "because I think 8.3-million South Africans deserve to know what happened to their jobs."

The scene had been well set by the DA for a meaningful, economic-focused speech from their leader that spoke to the number one issue facing South Africans. The party had done excellent work. And it had a national jobs campaign to ride on, too, rolled out the month before across the country.

Alas, come Maimane’s chance to explain, expound and offer up a series of meaningful, detailed solutions to the crisis, it was all forgotten. Badges, banners and bravado — none made an appearance. Instead, as with the year before, it was all about Jacob Zuma.

Last year, the "broken man" image was the hook on which his speech was baited; this year it was "planet Zuma". But the sentiment was no different.

Some of the lines were identical, too. Zuma was "not an honourable man", we were told last year. This year the same point was made. But it wasn’t from just his previous speeches that Maimane borrowed; there was some political cross-pollination.

During Zuma’s speech Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema blasted at the president: "Zuma is no longer a president that deserves respect from anyone!"

Sure enough, Maimane echoed the same sentiment on Tuesday: "We did not come out of respect for Jacob Zuma."

Where the EFF leads, the DA follows these days. Malema set the tone last Thursday, Maimane made it formal on Tuesday. In the end both speeches were remarkably similar in tone and intent.

Speaking after Maimane, Malema attacked the ANC for being weak and compliant, echoing Maimane. They both attacked the president’s "cronies", and the firing of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, of course, was referenced and condemned by both.

And Nkandla, what would any occasion be without reference to the bedrock of South African scandal? Both tore into the related corruption and wasted little time setting out how evidence before the Constitutional Court had made a mockery of the president’s and ANC’s attempts to block the search for accountability and justice.

The similarities don’t stop there. Malema also feigned a broader concern at the beginning of his speech. He started out saying he would not dignify an "illegitimate" president with a debate about him and his words. Rather, he was there to speak for the poor and marginalised. That lasted all of five minutes before, sure as night follows day, every last word of his address would be targeted straight at the president.

By end of Maimane’s speech 2,710 people were watching the parliamentary YouTube channel; 4,177 at the end of Malema’s. Five minutes into Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s speech, who was next up, the number had already dropped by a thousand.

That is an anecdotal piece of evidence. The pattern would have been replicated in its hundreds of thousands on television. The point is: these speeches matter. Maimane’s "broken man" speech last year showed the impact they can have.

It was Maimane and Malema the political fans came to see. Drip-fed on a longstanding diet of anti-Zuma vitriol, they were not disappointed. But it was to those not yet fans both really wanted to talk to.

Maimane made some weak platitudinal attempts to talk about real solutions towards the end of the speech but basically admitted, outside of all-inclusive clichés such as "we will cut red tape" and "we will privatise our failing state-owned enterprises", he had little hard economic policy to offer — certainly nothing in terms of actual analysis.

In fact, at one point he admitted as much, saying, "We will announce a number of measures to turn our economy around and lift people out of poverty." He’s been saying that for nine months now.

Announcing the DA’s new "Vision 2029" on June 13 last year, Maimane said: "We will unpack in detail the policies that we will implement to make our vision a reality when we are in national government." He promised "policies to get our economy growing and more inclusive. Policies focusing on land reform and B-BBEE (broad-based black economic empowerment). Policies that will make our country safer. Policies that will give our children the best possible start in life."

Well, he re-announced them. They are like the rapture, these policies. Always just beyond the next horizon.

It is amazing how often the media allows Maimane to deliver exactly the same promise, again and again, and again, but never once calls him out on his failure to deliver on it. If the ANC made the same kind of repeated commitment the press would be all over it. Perhaps it is a sign that they do not take the DA too seriously. It certainly seems to be a wave Maimane is able to ride indefinitely. Good on him, I guess, if you can get away with it, why not?

But, from the public sector wage bill to credit rating downgrades, to the president’s vague assurances on nuclear power, these sorts of things did not feature in the 25 minutes Maimane’s dedicated largely to demolishing president Zuma. On the night before Maimane’s speech no less, Moodey’s downgraded Anglo American debt to "junk" status; not a word about it from Maimane. You get the sense the DA’s speeches are inflexible, their character and tone predetermined — born not of strategy, but an addiction.

The political economy of Zuma bashing is very profitable mediawise. "Shower head", "Zupta", "the broken man". The DA and EFF routinely battle it out for who can come up with the catchiest putdown. Malema had "Zupta" on Thursday, so, of course, the DA had to have "planet Zuma" on Tuesday. It’s all so predictable.

Gus Silber put it like this: "Parliamentary debates are now won by whichever party comes up with the best Twitter hashtag and the best cartoon-ready meme." They are gimmicks, written by people who play with puns and grammatical games; not with substance and argument.

But here’s the thing: everyone of the DA’s supporters knows the president is compromised. They all know that under him the country is imploding. They all know Nkandla is bad. They know. What they don’t know, and what the DA seems utterly, totally and completely incapable of explaining in the same passionate and convincing terms, is how, in meaningful terms, it will make a difference.

Does the DA honestly believe the reason it has not taken off among potential black voters is because, since 2009, it has not bashed Zuma hard enough? Surely it is something else they are looking for? On the basis of Maimane’s speech, they remain no wiser. It's not just IQ that is lacking in terms of substance, but EQ in term   of potential voters.

Zuma isn’t the be-all and end-all of SA’s problems either. Many preceded him (Eskom, for example). Many other forces, from the unions to problematic ministers, played their part in SA’s grand condition. Maimane seems to think that if Zuma goes the ANC will right itself and the problems will evaporate.

"There are good people in the ANC," he said on Tuesday. There are. But the ANC is not the DA on a bad day. Its problems are not all competence related. It is an entirely different party, with a different ideology. It’s not all about one man.

There is one important difference between Julius Malema and Mmusi Maimane on this front. Malema’s assault on Jacob Zuma was absolutely on message. Born of a conflict with Zuma, and with his nemesis being the EFF’s leader, the party can afford to dedicate any and all communication to damning the president from one end of a speech to the other. It lives on anger and grows on indignation. It is the EFF’s rocket fuel.

The DA, however, cannot. It needs to convince people who are already well aware of how much the party detests Zuma to vote for it. To do that, the party needs to offer them a reason outside of its deep and seemingly irresistible hatred for the president. It cannot endlessly genuflect its existing supporters' anger back to them. At the heart of that reason is being able to demonstrate it has the economy, jobs, growth and prosperity at the heart of its agenda.

And, to do that, it needs to talk about those kinds of things incessantly and with great passion and purpose, the same kind of passion that generates its anti-Zuma venom, only in the other direction.

For the DA, bashing Zuma in a speech is a lot like the person who never swears. You can share a thousand words with them, but they just need to swear once and it will be all you remember about the conversation. Anyone looking for a reason to vote for the DA, knowing full well the party’s position on the president, will have listened to that speech and been peppered with nothing but swear words for the first 10 minutes of it. Zuma, Zuma, Zuma. But if it was passion about growth and prosperity they were looking for, no such luck. There’s too much rage in the way.

They would have heard it all before, and, given the DA’s proclivity for its oldest political addiction, you can be sure they will hear more of in the future.

The DA struggles hard to dispense the accusation that it deals in gimmicks and sound bites. But what is one to make of the badges and the banners when that is clearly all they were?

The word "president" appeared in Maimane’s speech 30 times. Look them up; the majority form part of some or other attack on the president’s integrity. All well-deserved for sure but consider this: "jobless" and "unemployment" each appeared only twice.

"Don’t forget the 8.3-million unemployed South Africans", the DA’s message seems to be, "Unless you have a chance to berate the president". Then all bets are off.