Little Stan Greenberg is Dead
Melissa Levin | August 5th, 2013


A dear friend and former colleague, Andy Davis, used to giggle at the sight of Stan Greenberg and I rushing through the hallowed halls of Shell House (the ANC’s former headquarters) together and talking numbers and strategy. He’d mock me, I like to think is a comradely way, about being “Little Stan Greenberg”. For those who know us both, Andy was not referring to physical stature, but to the relationship that the two of us had. Stan was one of my mentors. I delighted in learning from him, his generosity as a teacher and, yes, I was embarrassingly content in being regarded as his Robin.

How we would hold our breaths, me and Stan, when Madiba would take his glasses off his face and lay them down carefully upon the lectern from which he was addressing a crowd. Would he go off message? Would he unweave our tautly knit strategy? He invariably did. And if truth be told, his off-the-cuff remarks were always so much more interesting and inspired than what the office placed before him. A speech he gave in Gauteng called on ANC activists to deliver more than a two-thirds majority! “Why limit ourselves,” he exclaimed to roars of approval and in sheer disregard for the polls that told us the ANC shouldn’t come across as arrogant. I thought of that the other day when JZ (the South African president) reiterated Madiba’s call from a decade and a half ago that the ANC aspire to 100% in 2014. My pollster Pavlovianism was annoyed that JZ made the call. Even more than in Madiba’s time, the ANC should not display a lust for power, for the absolute power resonant in that figure. Be unpresumptuous, humble servants of the people, my pollster brain urged. Or, at least be seen to be that. Ja ne. This world of pollsters where optics trump substance, and the performance prevails over the deed.

Indeed, over the years I evolved an activist’s disdain for polling in its contribution to the politics of the sign, of spectacle over substance and message über alles. Polling’s effects sucked out whatever honesty was left in politics. The transnational regime of pollsters helped forge a politics of the centre and constrain aspirations to fundamental change. Variations of “better lives for all” manifested across the globe. The politics and policies undergirding those lofty slogans encouraged its opposite.

Having said this though, my Little Stan Greenberg heart broke when I read that the big guy is working for the Democratic Alliance for the election in 2014. In particular, he is focusing on the winnable Gauteng province, my province. Many of my professional competencies were nurtured by him. The big guy even historicized me in a book he wrote on lessons from various campaigns he’d worked on. I should’ve known though from that book that there was trouble on the horizon –- besides the various dubious campaigns that he has worked on, I am to be found in the index buoyed between Lekota, Terror and Lewinsky, Monica.

Anyway, the press release on Politicsweb announcing that the big guy has crossed the floor to the DA oozes the grammar of the pollster. I can see each word, each sentence carefully formulated to maximize its voter outreach potential. For a start, the headline tells us that “Mandela’s former pollster (is) to work with the DA”.

The big guy was employed by the ANC to work on our campaign –- not Mandela. But we all know that the DA strategy thus far has been to usurp the legacy of Mandela, to claim ownership of him as against his continued affiliation with the ANC. The press release talks about the Mandela-era ANC which creates the perception that the current ANC has abandoned Madiba’s vision. I see the big guy’s evolution of message that he must have heard over and over again in focus groups – “jobs for people, not just jobs for the leaders” – that the ANC is distant from the people, has lost its connection. And, by implication, the DA is the party to pick up the spear so’s to speak. Except that the DA doesn’t do spears. Their methods of subjugation are ever more subtle. And, I mean, I understand how imperialist wars can be spun into ‘wars on terror’ or the brutalization of innocents can be invoked as ‘collateral damage’ or how rape at my big guy’s alma mater (Yale) is reconstrued as ‘non-consensual sex’, but how on earth is the DA ‘progressive’? Could it be the views on labour deregulation or toilets for blacks or its notions on meritocracy in the context of centuries of colonialism? Or could it be the white male cabinet in the Western Cape that alerts us to a progressive politics? I wonder if my big guy remembers our anger and gloom when we were confronted with the DA’s 1999 election campaign – “Fight Back”? We understood it then as pandering to racism for the sake of expanding a vote share. We saw it, along with most other South Africans, as a “Fight Black” campaign where a new language of racism had emerged disguised in terms palatable to liberal democracy.

Well, it’s also sort of ironic that when Stan and I worked on the 1999 election campaign there was a discernible sense of distance between the ANC and its broad constituency, that was the ANC of the Mandela-era, but together (yes, we like that word), together we figured out a way to talk through that distance. While we are reminiscing about election campaigns past and past eras of greatness, we should also consider how Madiba’s preferred slogan for the 1994 election was “Sekunjalo ke nako” –- “Now is the time”. But Madiba lost the fight for that slogan. More ANC NEC members argued against the possible misinterpretation of that slogan; that whites would regard it as a rallying cry for payback for their past ill-deeds. Instead, Madiba had to be convinced by the majority of NEC members that “A better life for all” encapsulated a call for unity, togetherness and national solidarity.

When the DA, abetted by the big guy, makes a claim to Mandela they are making a claim against the present. It is an approach that panders to sentiment and shallow gestures to a time gone by. It is quite brilliant in that South Africa’s apartheid past is rendered obsolete and the past that matters is the time of Mandela’s rule. In this way, we don’t have to remember the National Party that together with the Democratic Party formed the Democratic Alliance. And neither do we have to recall Madiba except in the haze of nostalgia.

Anyway, my guru has left me. And that makes me sad. Little Stan Greenberg began withering away some time ago, to be fair — partly for professional and partly for personal reasons. But now, Little Stan Greenberg has finally died, a relatively obscure death, but a violent one nonetheless, crushed under the weight of troubling political choices.

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Melissa Levin

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11 thoughts on “Little Stan Greenberg is Dead

  1. I’m not a DA member or supporter as they remind me to much of the Republican Party in the USA and because of the fact that they got into bed with some ex NP members.. Having said that, it’s quite ironic how many people point to the fact that some NP members were taken in by the DA but every one seems to ignore the fact that the NP leader is in bed with the ANC AND a Minister to boot. A bit hypocitical, me thinks. The fact that the ANC took him in is the reason I won’t support the ANC either, and coupled to the fact that the ANC of today nowhere near resembles the ANC in exile. It’s amazing how liberation organisations change their tune once they become the governing party. I give you the Secrecy Act as a very pertinent point and now they even have the cheek to consider a law to prevent us stating our opinions of the leaders of the country, what will they call it, the “Do not insult the President Law”. As for election strategies, well, I can guarentee that the ANC will all of a sudden find it in their hearts to go and distribute food parcels etc in the rural areas shortly, especially now that Juju is about to take a huge amount of votes away from them. Juju is about to become a saviour of our country in that he will make in-roads and will weaken the ANC. No democracy can afford to have one party dominate to the extent that the ANC does because “Power Corrupts and Absolut Power Corrupts Absolutely”.It is my considered opinion that liberation organizations have never made successful governors and never will!

    • Thanks for the comment… for me there is a difference between individuals joining political organizations and parties merging. i also think that we need to consider context more substantially when thinking through the politics of liberation movements. when we do, i think we open up opportunities for politics. having said that, i think there is a problem with electoral politics in general that is not limited to former liberation movements which traps us in a politics of electoral competitiveness rather than ideational contestations. it is a politics of surf vs omo rather than visions for how we live together and organize ourselves.

      • One person, a party, no difference. One is judged by the company one keeps, period! As for ideas and visions, the ANC has none. The ANC is intellectually bankrupt, visionary bankrupt and morally bankrupt. It is so involved with internal battles that it actually forgets that it has a job to do, a country to run and develop. Any party or person that puts itself/themself before it’s/their country is worthless and that’s exactly what the ANC and it’s President are doing and therefore are. Their time is limited, between Juju and Mamphele there is still hope for us all!

  2. What a sad, petty, self-indulgent piece of writing. Yes, it’s always disappointing when one’s relationship with one’s mentor is transformed by time, by growing up, or by diverging opinions, but the sanctimonious tone of this whinge is unbearable. So your professional political pollster friend is now working for another party (14 years later): get over it. You speak as if the ANC is the same organization that you and Stan worked for back in the ’90s. It’s not. You may still work for it today (apparently in the ANC’s “Election Commission”), but it’s absurd to suggest that Stan’s re-emergence into South African politics with another party amounts to the treasonous “death” that you portray. Too much has happened since then for that to be the case. Look, why don’t you just be honest? You’re freaking out because now you will have to square off against your old mentor in a province that is up for grabs politically. You’re worried that he might swoop in with some new tricks that gives your opponents the edge. And if your party lost Gauteng, you would be partially to blame for bad election strategizing. But don’t shrink from the challenge, Melissa. Freakin’ own it! You and the ANC need to both stop whining about how horrible the opposition party is and face the DA with a renewed sense of vigour and purpose. Everyone would love it if the ANC stopped basing its election strategies on appealing to historical entitlement and tried rather to earn citizens’ votes based on vision, commitment, delivery, and honesty.

    • i don’t work for the ANC. i certainly would’ve disclosed that. i understand that there is much more at stake in this choice than the loss of a mentor. i have no issue with the idea of contestation. it is surprising to me that the decision was to take on the anc from the racist right and revise anti-apartheid history according to an electoral strategy. the anc, by the way, has usually steered clear of references to the past in relation to electioneering.

      • It’s interesting how you choose to focus on the Western Cape cabinet (which is far from all white) and not on the fact that the DA has a FEMALE party leader, a COLOURED MAYOR and a BLACK FEMALE leader in parliament. The ANC has never had a female party leader. Therefore I would have to surmise that you lack objectivity. Stan Greenberg is a professional who can work for whoever he wishes. You seem to lack that professionalism and prefer to attack him personally for choosing to work for a political party that you dislike. Perhaps that is why you were his number two.

    • Well said! What we need in this country is for the ANC to stop and take time for some harsh introspection. They have veered off the track that the founding fathers of the ANC plotted and have lost all morality and integrity. They are slowly but surely putting themselves in a situation similar to that of Mugabe and his cronies where they cannot afford to lose their power as they will all end up in prison if they do. This being the case, I have no doubt in my mind that they will adopt the same tactics as that madman and rig elections, they have proven beyond any doubt that they have no principles and ethics.

  3. Unprecedented writing.

    African National Congress are in the bed with the New National Party thought. Electioneering? We’ll ought to reshape, & redefine ourselves in contemporary South Africa without the narrow reductionist of African National Congress dichotomy, & Apartheid era taboos? What should we emphasise more, progressive, or clean governance? The Democratic Alliance is another typical Westernised, indoctrinated political party. Though, I will place my vote for a Westernised party, & not a liberation party that can’t distinguish the past & present.

  4. @cosmpolitan would do better to concentrate on the overarching narrative of the piece than to stoop to the reactionary and rather personal attack on the author, who is one of the few people who could not honestly be accused of sentimentality or sanctimonious whinge when it comes to her political analysis. It’s an opinion piece, and well written. Get over it! If the DA had a credible bone in its body and was not spawned from and sustained by some of the most reactionary race politics coming out of South Africa in decades, somebody with Greenberg’s intellect might be forgiven.

  5. The same Stan Greenberg who said this of Jim Messina’s going to work for the UK Conservatives, “It’s strange simultaneously to work for an organisation working to advance Obama’s agenda, and go work for a party that supports Tea Party austerity and closed doors to immigrants – the opposite of what you supported in the US election. I presumed that people get involved in politics because they believe in things, and they have a project.”?

  6. a superbly accurate account by Melissa Levin of a pollster whose moral fibre seems to have fallen along with his professional standing. Was shocked to hear that he had moved to the DA….rk side, after he had the honour to work with true leaders of our liberation.

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