The Democratic Alliance is proud of its “blue machine” election apparatus, and much of the time rightfully so. Both polls and anecdotal evidence show that its smart application of money and volunteer labour served it well, even if some mechanisms (notably its SMSes and robocalls to registered voters) have also led to annoyance.

But in the final days of campaigning this week, the ANC and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) both made the DA look plodding, sticking to its mechanical approach while its bigger and smaller rivals pulled off publicity triumphs.

Across all the battleground metros, and in several smaller but key races, undecided voters were a vital constituency, making the final impressions of each party as campaigning wrapped up more important than in any prior local government election.

The EFF went into Tuesday with the picture of a grinning Julius Malema seated next to former president Thabo Mbeki splashed across the pages of many newspapers, and articles on their meeting were prominent in or leading every other newspaper.

The photo was a masterstroke of dog-whistle politics, sending different messages to different groups of people.
To Mbeki supporters in the ANC, and the few still left in the Congress of the People, it was read as a passing of the torch. To Mbeki’s detractors, it was read as a cheeky exploitation of the former president. For those worried about Malema’s firebrand past and destructive tendencies, it was taken as being mature and burying the hatchet. For the older potential voter, there was the environment – leather armchairs and polished wood, redolent with command. For the younger voter, there were Malema’s impudent jeans and insolent posture.

As an added bonus for the EFF, when Johannesburg mayor Parks Tau also paid a call on Mbeki on Tuesday, his visit was seen as a belated and, frankly, pathetic response to the EFF’s. In his defence, Tau had visited the former president at least three weeks before, although the meeting was muted, with no flashbulbs popping.

DA leader Mmusi Maimane had also met Mbeki but did not issue any picture to the media.

In an election in which ownership of former presidents has come to play a big role, though, it was the ANC that came out on top, accidentally turning the DA’s claim to Nelson Mandela into a liability.

At a final campaign rally on Saturday, Maimane delivered an energetic and impassioned speech, with the central argument that the DA was the true home of Mandela’s vision. He also claimed that he had voted for the ANC, as had everyone he knew, in a show of respect for Mandela.

The claim should have been uncontroversial. Though Mandela was on the ANC’s party list only for the 1994 elections, the ANC itself issued the cry to “do it for Madiba” in subsequent elections.

In a show of unusual preparation, Maimane spoke for more than half an hour without referring to notes or a teleprompter, yet stuck very close to the written version of his remarks the DA later published. The advantage of seeming to speak off the cuff, and so connecting with his audience, came at the price of small rephrasings and elisions.

Maimane was supposed to tell his Dobsonville, Soweto, audience: “I voted here for the first time in 1999, down at the DSJ Primary School. We knew what we had to do: we had to vote for the man that helped liberate us – the party of Nelson Mandela.

“There was no debate. We were ANC, and the ANC was us. And that’s how everyone I knew voted. We did it for Madiba.”

What he actually delivered from the stage was: “In fact, the first time I voted just as a young South Africa … we knew what we had to do. You didn’t have a choice. You had to vote for the man that helped us, the party of Nelson Mandela, the party that helped liberate us. There was absolutely no debate. The ANC, we were in the ANC, and the ANC was with us. And that’s why everybody that I know voted back then for the ANC. They did it for Madiba.”

In the context of a speech, in which Maimane also recounted the effect it had had on him, as a 13-year-old, when Mandela was sworn in as the first democratically elected president, there was no hint of a lie. But without “1999”, that segment of the speech, in isolation, presented an opportunity.

The ANC’s formal response to Maimane was wordy statements deploring the “cheap politicking bordering on desperation” before, with no hint of irony, describing the DA as “the Trojan Horse of apartheid.”

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela also issued a statement decrying the DA’s claim to her former husband and linking the party to apartheid.

Neither approach gained much traction.

The killing stroke came with an entirely different approach.

“IEC needs to explain how Mmusi voted for Mandela at age 14 … we need answers,” joked prolific tweeter and home affairs spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete on that social network on Monday.

  Mayihlome did not dwell on the matter but the occasionally biting, often hilarious #ThingsMmusiDid hashtag went viral, overwhelming all other discussions of the elections, at least on Twitter, which is overwhelmingly populated by the urbanised demographic the DA assiduously courts.

The wild popularity of the meme continued well into Tuesday, then got new legs as the DA first responded by muddying the waters with references to the written version of Maimane’s speech. Its subsequent, and still earnest second attempt at a response gave the rumpus more impetus, ensuring that it reached those who may have missed it the first time around.

In a final insult, the incident distracted even the Blue Machine, as candidates and volunteers, online and off, found themselves confronted again and again with the question: Had Maimane lied? Suddenly, it seemed, nobody wanted to talk about Nkandla.