Gillian Schutte: Analysing the DA’s election ad flops

Watching John Steenhuisen feels more like being pitched the latest vacuum cleaner model than a vision for national renewal. His smarmy demeanour and lack of gravitas undermine his message, resulting in a disjointed narrative that fails to leave a lasting impression, writes Gillian Schutte.

Watching John Steenhuisen feels more like being pitched the latest vacuum cleaner model than a vision for national renewal. His smarmy demeanour and lack of gravitas undermine his message, resulting in a disjointed narrative that fails to leave a lasting impression, writes Gillian Schutte.

Published May 21, 2024


By Gillian Schutte

In the modern era of political campaigning, videos are an indispensable tool.

They combine emotional appeal, broad reach, and the ability to simplify complex issues into a format that is both engaging and memorable. By leveraging the power of videos, political campaigns can connect with voters on a deeper level, disseminate their messages more effectively, and ultimately influence public opinion and behaviour.

This is clearly what the Democratic Alliance (DA) was hoping for when they released a series of well-funded electoral videos in the weeks leading up to the national elections. However they achieved none of the hallmarks of successful and dynamic cinematic content and messaging. Rather the videos can only be described as a cinematic misadventure — a sad foursome of campaign ads that fall short of their intention to captivate the South African majority with a sophisticated blend of art and message.

Though party leader, John Steenhuisen professes that they were made with the intent to conjure up a mighty tsunami of controversy, what happened instead was a hamfisted plethora of unintentional comedy, artistic missteps, and a glaring disconnect between intention and execution.

I found myself compelled to analyse the videos through the lens of psychoanalysis, an exercise that quickly revealed a marked disparity between the party’s ideological aspirations and their symbolic representations. The symbolic order, as defined by post-structuralist philosopher Jacques Lacan, is the system of meanings, symbols, and cultural norms that shape our understanding of the world. Lacan states: "In the symbolic order, man depends on a network of signifiers which precede him and exceed him."

The DA’s election videos succeed only in showcasing the failure of neoliberal ideology to adequately symbolise and address the real conditions of socio-political crisis. Through the lens of Lacan, these videos reveal the gaping void at the heart of the DA’s ideological project.

Steenhuisen’s hackneyed and somewhat overwrought performances highlight this disjunction between Imaginary projections and the symbolic order they attempt to inhabit. The videos, ironically, end up underscoring the pitfalls of attempting to sell complex political solutions with the slickness of a commercial pitch as well as the desperate need for more authentic engagement with the real conditions of contemporary society. What they do not do is successfully sell the DA's version of a bright coalition future.

Style over substance

The first video, "Rescue South Africa", epitomises the party’s preference for style over substance. Sweeping drone shots and slow-motion sequences, intended to evoke grandeur, instead resemble elements from a tourism board advertisement. Despite technically proficient cinematography, the content is emotionally vacant, failing to connect with viewers meaningfully.

Watching John Steenhuisen feels more like being pitched the latest vacuum cleaner model than a vision for national renewal.

John Steenhuisen's performance is the central issue. His delivery, filled with a kind of forced urgency, lacks the Real. Watching him feels more like being pitched the latest vacuum cleaner model than a vision for national renewal. His smarmy demeanour and lack of gravitas undermine his message, resulting in a disjointed narrative that fails to leave a lasting impression.

Steenhuisen’s Razzie award winning performance

The second video, promising a jobs bonanza exemplifies ideological fantasy. Lacan’s notion of jouissance (enjoyment) is crucial here: the DA’s promise of two million jobs is presented with excessive enthusiasm, reflecting an attempt to incite a sense of jouissance in the electorate. However, this enthusiasm betrays an inherent lack, an absence of substantive policy detail that would anchor the fantasy in the symbolic order.

Steenhuisen’s exaggerated gestures and fixed smile are symptomatic of this ideological jouissance. His performance, bordering on parody, suggests a surplus of affect that fails to mask the underlying insufficiency of the DA’s neoliberal promises. The viewer cannot escape the chasm between the Imaginary projection and the Real socio-economic conditions.

In their promise to end load shedding, the DA dramatises the issue of energy shortages, inadvertently invoking the Real through its horror-like mise-en-scène. Dimly lit settings and candlelight represent an encounter with the Real, the traumatic core of the crisis that defies symbolic integration. The sudden shift to bright lights at the video's conclusion is a failed attempt to reassert the symbolic order, presenting a superficial resolution that does not truly address the real issue of infrastructural decay.

Steenhuisen’s amateurish attempt at slick delivery, intended to convey control and resolution, instead highlights the distance between the symbolic narrative of competence and the persistent Real of systemic failure.

In their message "Fighting Crime and Corruption", the DA employs a noir aesthetic to invoke the authority of the Big Other (the symbolic authority that structures social reality). However, the execution again borders on self-parody, undermining the intended earnestness. Steenhuisen’s attempts to project toughness and resolve are unhinged by his lack of presidential stature, highlighting the absence of a true Master Signifier (a symbol that anchors the ideological narrative). His serious expressions and stern tones feel performative, revealing the lack of genuine symbolic authority. The heavy reliance on clichés and theatrical delivery further detaches the video from the real issues it aims to address, leaving the viewer unconvinced.

The Great White Saviour burns the flag

A glaring ideological flaw in these video adverts is their inappropriate resurrection of the Great White Saviour Complex. The portrayal of white politicians as benevolent rescuers of predominantly black communities perpetuates outdated colonial tropes and reinforces racial hierarchies instead of addressing systemic issues. This ideological subterfuge is hidden in the neocolonial undertones present in all of the DA's adverts.

Not only do they employ a racist and ahistorical colonial trope, but they also champion neoliberal economic policies like deregulation and market-led growth. The DA party willingly perpetuates global economic hierarchies and Western hegemony thereby reinforcing exploitative capitalist structures. What appears as promises of progress and prosperity are, in reality, veiled forms of exploitation and dependency.

The canned filmic content and style of the DA's adverts distracts from substantive political issues. High production values, sweeping visuals, and polished aesthetics create a seductive illusion of control and progress, masking the harsh realities of socio-economic inequality and political corruption. Like over-directed propaganda films, the adverts attempt to manipulate emotions and perceptions, obscuring the true nature of power dynamics at play.

In the end, the Democratic Alliance’s election videos are a masterclass in missed opportunities and artistic misfires.

They strive for high drama but achieve the unintentional comedy of a student film project. John Steenhuisen, with his 1950’s vacuum-cleaner-salesman charm, serves as a constant reminder that true leadership requires more than a well-rehearsed pitch—it demands authenticity and depth.

These videos, earnest but misguided, do however, provide rich material for any auteur filmmaker. They underscore the importance of aligning artistic vision with intentional delivery. In this way the DA’s cinematic misadventures are not entirely a loss. At the very least they offer worse practice case studies to film schools — a cautionary tale of ideological manipulation and the failure of neoliberal ideology to resonate with the real conditions of contemporary society.

The public backlash against their fourth advert, which controversially depicted the burning of the South African flag, underscores the power of ideology in shaping political narratives and the necessity of remaining vigilant against manipulative tactics masquerading as benevolent leadership.

From a Žižekian perspective, the DA's flag burning film can also be understood as a spectacle of arrogance—a public display of power and dominance intended to assert the party's authority and superiority.

However, instead of projecting strength, the film exposed the party's vulnerability and hubris, as it laid bare the extent of their detachment from the realities of South African society.

In Žižek's terms, the spectacle of arrogance ultimately undermines the legitimacy of the party's authority, as it reveals the gaping and festering wound between their lofty ideals and the lived experiences of ordinary citizens.

* Gillian Schutte is a film-maker, and a well-known social justice and race-justice activist and public intellectual.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.