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JOHANNESBURG-In the no-holds-barred world of political advertising, one can expect some mud-slinging. And South Africa, where the first-ever free general election will be held April 27, is no exception.

Altogether about $30 million will be spent on the print, radio and outdoor efforts. TV is not permitted to level the playing ground for less well-funded parties.

Even so only three of the some dozen parties registered appear to have enough funds to advertise. Radio is encouraged to reach eligible voters since the illiteracy rate is about 50%.

In the opening salvos that started last month, the National Party, led by F.W. de Klerk, and the ANC, by Nelson Mandela, have each claimed responsibility for the abolition of apartheid and for being the agent of change.

The NP, the current ruling party responsible for both apartheid and its repeal, is aiming to convince the public it has changed to attract the black and mixed race vote. But it also needs, at the same time, to reassure its traditional, primarily white Afrikaaner supporters that it will accommodate their needs in its ads by Optimum Marketing Communications, a division of Saatchi & Saatchi Klerk & Barrett.

In its ads, NP takes sole credit for ending apartheid with copy such as, "On 2nd February 1990 F. W. de Klerk announced the death of apartheid and set South Africa on the road to democracy." The ad also takes a subtle swipe at the opposition: "When Nelson Mandela lights a "Flame of Freedom' today, he honors President de Klerk's achievements."

"This is the sort of campaign we would have expected in the 1970s. It's totally irrelevant to today," said Ian Shepherd, chairman, Grey Advertising.

In other ads, NP gives the impression of a party guaranteed a win despite widespread polls predicting only a maximum of 15% of the vote. The ANC, on the other hand, is predicted to get at least 50%.

The ANC and its agency, Applied Marketing and Communications, a unit of Hunt Lascaris TBWA, aren't taking NP's ads lying down. In one ad, a simple cartoon shows Mr. Mandela in a boxing ring, having just knocked out a giant opponent-Apartheid. Outside the ring Mr. de Klerk is cheering, saying, "I did it, I did it."

The copy reads, "Judging from recent claims, the so called `New National Party' is looking remarkably similar to the old one. In their latest version of history they are the heroes that changed South Africa.*.*.Next thing they'll be telling us apartheid never existed. The lesson of history is clear: those who deny the past must never be trusted with the future."

The ANC needs to persuade voters that it is an all-inclusive party since it is still seen by many as a party strongly tied to its black liberation movement roots. Through its advertising, the ANC needs to shake off its violence-ridden image and show itself as a serious contender to run the country.

Outlining plans for justice, equity and prosperity and to try to reassuring whites, other ads are heavy on copy. "We are taking a positive approach," says Julian Ovsiowitz, managing director of AM-C. "We are marketing the ANC's plan for a better South Africa, covering topics such as job creation, housing, health and education." Noticeably absent is the high-profile Mr. Mandela, to attract voters to the party itself rather than just its major symbol.

"The plan is underpinned by the manifestos theme `A better life for all.' As the campaign develops it will go into the specifics of how the promise can be delivered," said Mr. Ovsiowitz. He declined to give more details.

The ANC ads "are a very slick campaign," said Grey's Mr. Shepherd. "They certainly have the upper hand."

With The Jupiter Drawing Room as its agency, the Democratic Party is positioning itself as the thinking party which can make the difference despite its size-the DP currently has only 3%-5% of the vote.

DP's positioning statement "Protecting you from the abuse of power" draws attention to potential problems arising from over-concentration of power, on either side of the political spectrum. A billboard wittily takes up the argument: Two bold statements appear on either side of the DP logo-"If the right gets in, there'll be nothing left" and "If the left gets in, there'll be nothing right."

A key to the DP campaign is its middle ground. With the NP perceived as a "white" party and the ANC seen as a "black" party, the DP is carefully avoiding stirring any racial discord. "With many voters feeling apprehensive and insecure the DP must be projected as tough and uncompromising on fundamental principles," said Derek Logan, art director of The Jupiter Drawing Room. "The tone must not be arrogant, patronizing or offensive."

But some find it too highbrow. "The DP campaign is clever, but I wonder if it has enough appeal for blacks," said a respected business editor.

In the election, an interim government will be selected to sit for five years, during which time a new constitution will be written. A two-thirds majority of Parliament's 400 members will be required to approve the constitution.

So with 25% of the electorate undecided and at least 50% supporting the ANC, getting the word out about party platforms is crucial.

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