In 1994, the idea that the ANC might lose power was unthinkable. Now, with the 2019 elections approaching, the party is on the ropes. It’s a classic tale of a strong brand that has been allowed to denature thanks to a string of scandals and poor service delivery. The question is, can it be saved?
The fact that Ahmed Kathrada, stalwart of the struggle, chose to be buried draped in the ANC flag, despite his disillusionment with the current party leadership, says much about the power of the ANC brand and what it has meant to so many people for so many years. Over its 104-year history it is a brand that has inspired devotion of religious proportions in its followers. But Africa’s best-known liberation movement is in trouble.
Brand management theory emphasises two fundamental transgressions that can lead to the demise of a brand: violating the brand promise and jettisoning the values that are important to the brand and its supporters.
The African National Congress (ANC) has in recent years consistently violated the promises it made when it came to power and has abandoned its own values. Subsequently, the once revered organisation is facing an uphill battle to retain the lustre of its brand which has been tarnished by scandals, allegations of corruption and “state capture”, and a poor service delivery record.
For the first time since 1994, the ANC faces the serious risk of losing power in the years ahead. The outcome of last year’s local government elections provided the clearest indication yet that the party is losing support, especially in urban areas. Ongoing calls for its leader, President Jacob Zuma, to step down, suggest that the ANC is on the ropes and a knockout blow appears imminent. Can the party’s leaders do anything to save the brand?
Strategy consultant Thabang Motsohi has argued that in business when sales and profits progressively decline over time [read when votes decline in politics], it means among other things, that erosion of the brand has set in and usually the task of rebuilding it can be very challenging and disruptive. And the problems that caused the decline must first be fixed before the brand rebuilding can resume. According to Motsohi, some brands have literally disappeared from history through bad strategic judgement that led to self-destruction. In business, and indeed in politics, the demise and disappearance of brands occurs all the time irrespective of how strong they were. Despite President Zuma’s infamous claim that the ANC will rule until Jesus comes, the party runs the risk of imploding should it fail to successfully re-invent itself.
Back to branding basics
Opposition parties are waiting in the wings to capitalise on the ANC’s weaknesses, so, what can the ANC do to stave off this challenge? A good place to start would be a good old-fashioned “SWOT” (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis to clearly identify, among other things, the party’s strengths that it can build on and the weaknesses that have led to its current state. Such an analysis will be key in informing future strategies of re-building or re-positioning the brand. One of the few strengths of the party at present is the fact that it has been in government for a very long time. It should look to highlight or emphasise this experience in government, notwithstanding its shortcomings. It has an opportunity to renew itself by, among other things, promoting a new breed of young leaders, and taking strong action against those seen to be tarnishing the brand. Thus far, the party has failed to take this opportunity, and is unlikely to do so.
The handling of scandals by ANC leaders to date, has not been reassuring. From the Nkandla debacle during which public money was unjustly used to upgrade Zuma’s plush private homestead, and the allegations of state capture by the controversial Gupta family, to the recent axing of respected finance minister Pravin Gordhan, which sent the rand and markets into a tailspin, no-one has been held accountable. This has further eroded the brand.
Leading by example
According to Johnny Johnson, a brand and communications strategist, writing in BusinessLive, living up to the brand promise needs to be the concerted effort of everyone in the organisation but it is leadership’s responsibility to look after the brand and to make sure it has integrity. If an organisation wants a strong brand, with strength measured by trust, then the brand strategy that builds and protects the brand, must be developed and owned by the full leadership team, inspired by the CEO/President, who is the brand owner. Brand strategy needs to be facilitated at the highest level of leadership in the company because great brands are built from the inside out, argues Johnson.
Some within the ANC are very much aware of the fact that the party has lost its way. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa recently called on the ANC to address the challenges it is facing, or continue to lose support. ANC MP Makhosi Khoza has also been vocal and recently penned her concerns about the state of the ruling party. With more senior party members speaking openly about the shortcomings of the organisation, there is a glimmer of hope that the brand can be saved. However, the problem in the ANC is not just Zuma but the entire organisation, as it has to a large extent become a political organisation based on financial transactions and patronage. The decay of the ANC brand is playing out in state owned entities such as Eskom, SAA and SABC, which continue to fail largely because of the party’s deployment of incompetent cadres. SA Inc. as a brand has also been tarnished by the ANC and this is likely to lead to investor and capital flight, which will make it harder for the country’s economy to grow and create much needed jobs.
The need to modernise
Some have argued that the current crisis in the ANC stems from the fact that the organisation has remained fundamentally a liberation movement, and has not assumed a new, modern, professional political party posture. The organisation has kept the moral righteousness of liberator but this has not translated into responsible governance.
Furthermore, the ANC appears oblivious to the impact of its decisions on the social and economic fabric of the country. The party has long relied on its liberation credentials since coming into power in 1994, and as we have seen with other liberation movements on the continent, like Zanu PF in Zimbabwe, such a strategy is slowly but surely losing resonance with a large section of the public, most of whom are young, forward looking and more interested in the bread and butter issues, not the sentimentality of the liberation struggle.
To speak to these voters, the ANC will need to work harder to clean up its tarnished image and look to introduce new forward-looking strategies. A leadership renewal will also be crucial. The party needs to give younger, energetic leaders with fresh ideas, a chance to take charge. Moreover, it needs moral guardians who will enforce and promote the party’s core values, which include building a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous SA. Maybe then it can live up to the trust placed in it by the late, great Kathrada and others who lived and died to uphold the organisation – and the country.