There is a bigger chance of the pope coming out as atheist than there is of the Democratic Alliance winning 30% of the national vote in 2014. But they know that, of course. However, a fascinating question to consider is what it would take for the DA to become a party that can get that large a slice of the vote as soon as possible. After all, it surely does not want to be the official opposition until Jesus comes.
The DA needs to do three things. They are, in order of importance: the party must change the tone of its communications radically and immediately, Helen Zille should step down as quickly as possible, and there needs to be clearer policy differentiation from the ruling party.
A shift in tone
The single biggest strategic mistake the DA makes is to assume that politics is a brain challenge rather than a game of the heart. They think that an online column of 2000 words of financial data analysis by one of their strategists, showing the ANC to be ruining Mangaung, will persuade voters in Mangaung to ditch the ANC. Equally, they think that complex auditing reports of how well they run municipalities in the Western Cape will be sufficient to persuade black Africans to vote DA.
But politics is not a brain sport. It is not an exercise in rational choice theory that takes you back to second-year economics lectures at the University of Cape Town. It is true here and elsewhere in the world. (Which "rational actor" would vote for George W Bush over John Kerry?)
This is not to say that voters are irrational and cannot reason about what is and is not in their self-interest. But we are also psychological creatures, not just brain machines. The trick is both to move voters and explain to them what skills you have that your political opponents do not have.
The DA obsesses about one part of that strategy -- skills, facts, data - and totally neglects the other part of the political game -- speaking from the heart, empathising with the disenfranchised and giving a disillusioned voter not just the promise of running water and sanitation but also that most human of responses: a hug. Both are crucial aspects of effective political communication.
There is an excellent recent example of this tone-deaf approach to political communication on the part of parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko. At an event for young professionals, a black student nervously asked Mazibuko a question to the effect of: "I'm at UCT and about to graduate and am looking to enter the job market. I'm wondering what the DA can do to help us young black professionals to enter the market confidently and successfully?"
Now, perhaps the question is daft insofar as it wrongly assumes that political parties must play this kind of guidance role. But politicians need to be emotionally and politically savvy in how they respond. And so I waited keenly for Mazibuko's response. It was most revealing, along the lines of: "I'm surprised that anyone who is at UCT should have confidence problems. If you can get into UCT, then you should not have confidence issues. It is not my job to come to UCT and give pep talks."
The young student was crushed. I sat a few metres away from her and could see her enthusiasm draining from her face. She had asked the question nervously, politely, and had received a response that suggested she had been aggressive. The girl and her friend left the building quickly, rather than taking up the MC's suggestion that everyone should stay behind "to network".