A general election campaign poster for Cyril Ramaphosa, leader of the of the ANC. Picture: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg
A general election campaign poster for Cyril Ramaphosa, leader of the of the ANC. Picture: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

The EFF hits a home run: a relaxed, smiling Julius Malema looks "energetic" and "vibrant" — "not [like] a fat cat". DA leader Mmusi Maimane, in contrast, "has to look serious".

Meanwhile, Cyril Ramaphosa is "the only thing the ANC has to offer".

With about two weeks to go before South Africans turn out for the country’s sixth democratic elections, political parties have, quite literally, taken their messages to the streets. Grinning politicians beam down from lamp poles and traffic lights — with the exception of the solemn Maimane, that is. But it’s not just pageantry: pundits agree that good election posters are an important part of any party’s campaign.

"[The election poster] plays two roles," says Gareth van Onselen, head of policy research at the SA Institute of Race Relations (IRR). "The first is qualitative — in terms of the message the posters carry. The second is quantitative — in terms of the number and sense of ‘presence’ they create for a party’s particular brand … They supplement the party’s broader message and create the sense, in their numbers, that the party is a big and powerful force."

Spin doctor Chris Vick agrees on the matter of presence. And, he says, if your opponent has such a presence, you need to do the same, lest you be rendered invisible.

What this means is that, contrary to popular belief, when it comes to media, the battle for votes is not being fought on Twitter.

A recent IRR study found that the impact of what politicians say and do on social media is sometimes exaggerated. Only 9% of all registered voters are on Twitter. A much larger sample are on Facebook (36%) and WhatsApp (47%). Yet, judging by media reports, the latter two barely feature when it comes to headline-grabbing news.

"While social media is gaining traction in SA, it is not yet a trusted platform," says political analyst Ralph Mathekga. "Social media does not always truly reflect the breadth of the wider thinking in SA. It is the middle class [that] dominates social media, and the middle class is a tiny fraction [of the population] in SA. For example, a party can be popular on social media, but not truly popular across the wider population."

Hence the importance of the humble election poster. But posters also outperform Twitter on another measure: longevity. Think of the iconic "Hope" poster from Barack Obama’s first US presidential campaign, for example. Created by contemporary street artist Shepard Fairey, the image became a rallying cry for those who felt the world’s superpower needed a new direction. It remains one of the most recognisable works of political messaging.

But not all election posters are created equal. On this count, the experts agree that the EFF has done a particularly good job, with posters proclaiming Malema the "son of the soil".

"The Malema poster builds on the general messaging of the EFF, which is one of the most direct of this election: ‘Land and jobs now’," says Vick. "That’s why it’s smart to position the leader of the party as a ‘son of the soil’ — it reinforces the basic grassroots demands of the party, and will consolidate [Malema’s] support base, and possibly even grow it."

Mathekga, too, talks of how the party has tapped into popular sentiment with a "very captivating" message that positions Malema as "one of the people".

He says: "[Malema] seems to have had a personal makeover, losing weight and not coming across as a fat cat. He looks more energetic and he looks vibrant, as opposed to [a] relatively older ANC president.

"I found the poster worth looking at, even if I find some of the proposals of the EFF outright populist and sometimes outlandish."

Posters need to be three things: simple, clear and striking
Gareth van Onselen

Van Onselen also picks out the appeal of the EFF’s efforts. "Their message posters are the most visually striking: the writing the biggest (so you can read it from a distance, when driving) and the message clear, simple and focused."

But while Malema — along with Ramaphosa, COPE’s Mosiuoa Lekota and the IFP’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi — has his best grin on show, the DA’s Maimane looks stern. Not in a menacing way, like former leader Tony Leon, who featured on posters with his arms crossed, urging voters to "fight back". Nor the friendly female trio of Helen Zille, Patricia de Lille and Lindiwe Mazibuko back in more harmonious days. But pundits say Maimane sends a clear message.

"The DA leadership needs to look serious if it is to be taken seriously," says Vick.

"They’re clearly trying to position Maimane as a ‘statesman’."

Mathekga agrees. "Maimane has had challenges as the leader of the DA, as the first black leader of a traditionally white party, and as someone who is confronted with a party that is struggling to position itself as it confronts the challenges of growth. Indeed, he has to look serious. Perhaps the poster is trying to send the message that says he is serious. The DA is good with branding and this may be deliberate."

But Van Onselen — who once held a senior position in the DA’s communications department — is dismissive of the party’s efforts. He believes the posters are "too complicated" and the text too hard to read.

"Posters need to be three things: simple, clear and striking," he says. "The DA’s are indistinguishable. But they do have a lot of them, and so that helps on the presence side of things.

"As for Maimane’s expression, I am sure the DA is trying to create the impression it’s a serious contender for the presidency and national government — but, really, it is largely irrelevant because the picture is so small and the posters so badly designed."

As for the FF Plus’s controversial "fight back" poster, Van Onselen believes it hits the mark, figuratively speaking.

"It is a good, effective poster. The writing could be a little bigger and the colouring a bit more striking, but [it’s] generally a clear message: easy to understand and see."

Mathekga thinks the FF Plus poster provides a clear expression of the party’s concerns. "The FF Plus seems worried about leftist populism and expropriation threats — hence the ‘fight back’. They are clear as to whom the threat comes from: it’s the EFF and the ANC.

"It’s simple."

However, Vick believes the party has crossed the line, using antagonistic language in a country where "there’s already too much discord and violence".

He says the slogan is simply confirmation of the party’s confrontational approach. In reality, though, he says "they have nothing to offer but a fighting mood".

Where is the ruling party in all of this? Analysts agree that the decision to make Ramaphosa the only face of the party’s poster campaign was a no-brainer.

"He has credibility," says Mathekga, "and he is pulling the limping ANC into the elections."

For Van Onselen, the party didn’t have much choice: Ramaphosa (and the message of hope and renewal he brings) is the only thing it has to offer. "Outside of that, it seems a campaign devoid of any powerful or distinctive message and without a single focused theme," he says. "Thus, it makes sense that the party has put him front and centre. The ANC’s election revolves almost completely around the idea of him."

What it means

Even in the age of social media, the humble election poster still packs a powerful punch

Besides, imagine voters’ reactions to posters of Ramaphosa arm in arm with under-fire secretary-general Ace Magashule, or Bosasa-linked ANC heavyweights such as Nomvula Mokonyane or Gwede Mantashe, or Malusi Gigaba and Bathabile Dlamini.

Ramaphosa is, says Vick, the party’s biggest drawcard – "particularly given the levels of disgust, even among die-hard ANC supporters, about some of the personalities on the ANC’s election list".

He nonetheless finds the party’s poster campaign troublesome. "[It] feels lacklustre, almost symptomatic of the lack of cohesion and unity within the organisation … The ANC clearly should be making corruption a key element of its election message, but it seems to be shying away from that."

Not that it all hangs on the posters in the end. These are but one element of an election campaign strategy, says Vick. The key remains real organisational work on the ground: meetings, door-to-door visits, and social and mainstream media campaigning.

The posters themselves will be taken down within two weeks of voting day. So, short of hitting the jackpot and going viral with an Obama-like "Hope" poster, it is parties’ actions after May 8 that will determine the position they occupy in the public imagination over the longer term.