American fingerprints seen in South Africa, too

South Africa's likely next president is a suit-and-tie diplomat with a British education and a passion for books, often criticized for being distant from the people. But Thabo Mbeki is softening his image as he campaigns in the country's second all-race election - thanks perhaps in part to American Stanley Greenberg.

Mr. Greenberg, poll-taker on Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign, played a major role in running the African National Congress's first election campaign in 1994. Five years later, he is here again - off and on between trips to Israel, where he helped take Ehud Barak to victory May 17.

"We have commissioned three major polls and he [Greenberg] helps us to analyze the results," says Melissa Levin, coordinator for research on the ANC campaign. "He's really incredible."

Says Bob Mattes, an American pollster who knows Greenberg and works for the nonpartisan Institute for Democratic Alternative in South Africa: "Just the fact that they are using focus groups and surveys to learn what excites their voters is something new here."

Ms. Levin maintains that polls have had little impact on the style of ANC advertisements and slogans: Policies are based on party workshops that define positions. And "we don't want to refashion our leader," she says.

But a full-page ad running in city newspapers this week projects Thabo Mbeki as a T-shirt-clad man of the people, standing at a rally podium with his eyes impassioned, his finger raised to stress a point. "Enough is Enough," reads the slogan. "Criminals must be punished." Another ad says "We must root out corruption."

It is a distinct change in style. Public-opinion polls have already shown that crime and corruption are key issues in this campaign.

When ANC "freedom fighters" first ran for political office in 1994 - after years of living in exile and fighting apartheid from the underground - it was Greenberg who set the tone of the historic all-race election campaign.

ANC veterans originally wanted to run on their record as the party of liberation, says Mr. Mattes.

"It was going to be ... all about the forces of light and darkness," explains Mattes, who studied the impact of polling on the 1994 campaign. "But when Greenberg came aboard, the campaign changed a lot. His research showed that there wasn't much confidence that the ANC could govern. So he advised them to make it an an issue campaign."

The party issued policy documents and made a long string of promises to draw support from the impoverished masses. It conducted "people's forums" across the country because Greenberg's polls had shown that people felt the party had lost touch with its grass roots. "That strategy was loosely based on the Clinton bus campaign of 1992," Mattes says.

The party also learned the "fast response" tactic. "People at Shell House [ANC headquarters] learned to put their finger to the fax button: Every time you get a criticism, you put out a press release."

In the lead-up to the second all-race elections June 2, the ANC continues to run the slickest campaign, and the most recent independent polls put the party's support at a whopping 62 percent.

Rod Alence, another American pollster in South Africa, says US consultants can offer important advice on how to market leaders and use media in election campaigning.

The danger, Mr. Alence says, is that "Americans fly into a foreign campaign without understanding the dynamics of how local voters make up their minds."

The ANC was quick to deny reports in February that it had accepted an offer from Britain's Labour Party to lend it election guru Peter Mandelson. One source says the ANC is sensitive about the subject: "They don't like to admit they are getting foreign advice."

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