vandals on the hustings

Politicians battling for votes on the country's lampposts are decidedly unhappy at attacks on their carefully composed posters by vandals using thick black markers, stencils, duct tape and spray-paint.

Politicians battling for votes on the country's lampposts are decidedly unhappy at attacks on their carefully composed posters by vandals using thick black markers, stencils, duct tape and spray-paint.

"It is not good for the public to see things like that. It really is a problem," says Pieter Groenewald, federal legal committee chairperson of the Freedom Front Plus.

Along Beyers Naude Drive in Blackheath, Johannesburg, FF Plus leader Pieter Mulder has gained a scrawled beard, eyebrows and earrings, and the party - known in Afrikaans as the Vryheidsfront Plus (VF) - has been re-dubbed "Vokken Fansy".

But it is ANC president Jacob Zuma who appears to be suffering the worst of the attack, at least in Johannesburg.

His detractors have added horns to his visage, a forked tongue, a shower rose, a banana. They have labelled him "criminal", and the country under his rule "Zumbabwe". His party's message, "Let's work together to do more", has gained the word "crime" along some streets, "corruption" on others.

"The defacing of posters is a matter of great concern to the ANC ... because it clearly demonstrates there are still politicians in South Africa [who] do not believe in political tolerance and [who] do not believe in constitutional democracy," says ANC spokesperson Brian Sokutu.

"We are taking this matter to the IEC because we view [it] very seriously."

The party records and files every instance of poster defacing brought to its attention and forwards them to its legal monitoring unit. As fast as party officials take down the offending posters and replace them with clean ones, other posters are defaced.

"I'm not surprised that Zuma has borne the brunt," says Aubrey Matshiqi, a political analyst at the Centre for Policy Studies. As the president of the largest party, there would be more Zuma posters than any other, he says.

Matshiqi believes there is a "positive" side to defacing. "It is a form of political communication and therefore ... it's a form of political participation. It is a way of giving voice to a particular political view." What was questionable was whether it was an acceptable way of expressing a political view. "I suppose the answer lies in the country's political culture," he says.

At the moment, it is a crime to deface an election poster, and one the Electoral Act warns is punishable with a fine of up to R200000 - or just a "formal warning".

Should a party's supporters be found to have had a hand in it, the party itself can be deregistered - and be barred from the elections altogether, says Groenewald.

If people want to make a political comment they should write a letter to the newspapers or vote on election day, says DA chief executive Ryan Coetzee. "They should pay for posters before they use them to make a comment. They are our posters," he says.

Posters cost the party R16 to R17 each, for the board, the pasting, the drilling, the transporting and travel time. "Posters are very expensive," adds Coetzee, estimating that the party had easily lost 20000, maybe more.

"We spray-paint the back of the boards. That cuts on theft quite nicely. We do that entirely for that reason."

The DA's bus shelter campaign had fared even worse, he says. "I'll never be doing that again." From the beginning of the campaign, the branding was just "ripped off".

"Billboards are fine. Nobody can reach them," he says.

"There are crazy people out there ... If they can reach them, they can deface them ... That is why we put more money on billboards, because they are higher up," says UDM leader Bantu Holomisa.

Holomisa is himself a victim, with devil's horns and a tail added to the party's election message on a dustbin in Beyers Naude Drive.

Even the UDM's billboards have been targeted, with two replaced so far. The ANC says one of its billboards has also been defaced.

Cope went for mainly billboards and wrap-around building advertising from the start of its campaign.

"My sense is that the effect [of poster defacing] on the elections is just about zero," says political analyst Steven Friedman.

"How does one evaluate something like this?" he asks, adding that care had to be exercised in describing it as an indication of some kind of social phenomenon, because "one person with a great deal of energy and the right equipment can do something like this".

He found it "a stretch" to suggest someone was out there defacing posters to make a political comment.

"It is far more likely [that it is being done by] someone deeply intolerant [who] can't stand the sight of someone else's posters up, or someone who thinks they are hilariously funny," he says.

"I've never seen any particular connection between posters and the election result.

"I would probably go so far as to say that if one voter out of 20 million was influenced by posters that's quite a lot. Parties could not lose by never putting the darn things up in the first place."

Retorted Holomisa: "He doesn't know what he's talking about." Although Holomisa acknowledged that posters seemed to be little other than a "waste of money", he said: "Once people don't see you on these posters they think that you are not there." - Sapa