Saturday, 25 January 2014

The Patriotic Alliance's by-election in Vredendal

In three days, the country will see if it is possible for a party barely two months old to win an election.
Granted, it’s a by-election in a place few people have heard of. But it’s a place where the message of the Patriotic Alliance (PA) has been heard daily by the mostly coloured population who live in the township of Vredendal Noord and the just more than 20 grape farms surrounding it.
The DA won the ward in 2011, but their councillor, Patrick Bok, walked over to the ANC, confident that he could take the people’s votes with him in a by-election. But at the beginning of January, he would have been distressed to see a stream of people in green T-shirts flooding the town. Suddenly, there were ever more locals in green. Particularly on the farms, the Patriotic Alliance has found the people very receptive to the promise of a party that could be a viable, strong alternative to the DA and the ANC. The PA’s campaign has been about constant visibility of canvassers, signing up hundreds of people as party members, handing out shirts, dishing out fliers, arranging competitions and braais, painting and fixing the houses of elderly women in the ward, offering a free legal service and following up with the freshly minted members about what they want to see changed in their ward. On Saturday, the plan was for 120 Cape Minstrels to parade through the town in support of the PA, something most people in the town have never seen.
In response, the ANC has attempted to discredit the party by instructing its canvassers to reference rumours in the media that the party is headed by gangsters, that its chairperson Jonas White was facing corruption charges from when he was still an ANC mayor, that if they vote for the Patriotic Alliance, their peaceful hamlet will be flooded with drugs and guns. It’s not a message many seem to find credible, although it has made some in the community doubt the green wave. But the PA goes back and puts its side. Only the vote tally will decide whose story was the most credible.
The Patriotic Alliance has no governance track record, but when you speak to people on the farms they’ll tell you that their circumstances have changed little over the last 20 years. In the township, many back yard dwellers will tell you they have been on the waiting list for a house for more than 15 years, yet they’ve seen people arriving from elsewhere to squat in the area, only to be placed in RDP houses within a year or even months. Whether it’s true or not is immaterial. What matters is the perception that the established parties have failed on many of the big issues.
In response, the ANC has ordered two ministers to the area in the past two weeks. Last weekend, it was Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson who, according to reports from those who were at her government meeting with farmworkers, spat fire and invective at the Patriotic Alliance. On Friday, it was Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant, again heading to the farms. The DA sent Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille on Tuesday and reports were that Premier Helen Zille herself would attend the party’s rally in the town on Saturday.
All this for a ward of a few thousand people in a little “dorpie” 300km from Cape Town up the West Coast. If the PA is not a threat, as both parties have repeatedly said, why then treat it as one?
For these parties, this by-election is about much more than just Vredendal. It’s about trying to break the green machine before it has a chance to get up to speed. Because particularly in the Western Cape, this town has proven that the Patriotic Alliance could become a headache and a hurdle to both of the big parties’ Western Cape ambitions: to the DA’s attempt to keep their slim majority in the province and the ANC’s quest to win it back.

PA by-election candidate Jackeline Gorden on the campaign trail in Vredendal

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