Analysis of the third kind
1 October 2014 09:59 (South Africa)
South Africa

Analysis: Opposition jostles for position in fifth Parliament

  • Rebecca Davis
  • South Africa
rebecca-opposition-battles-subbedm.jpg

While the DA basked in Spy Tape triumph in Pretoria, the EFF had a muted time of it in Parliament, with their first motion thoroughly defeated and mention of Julius Malema’s tax bill trailing him. The EFF also failed to win a single seat at the Wits student elections when results were announced on Thursday. The DA will be hoping that this represents the order of things going forward: the EFF all flash and no substance, while the DA’s painstaking, long-term projects – like the Spy Tape litigation – bear fruit. By REBECCA DAVIS.

It’s been a fortnight where many people been drawing unflattering comparisons between the DA and the EFF – unflattering, that is, for the DA. Used to comfortably occupying the territory of the most consistent and vocal opposition to the ruling party, the DA has suddenly found itself pushed into a new space. It’s a space where the red-overalled upstarts have seemed to capture the imagination of even those who might balk strongly at the idea of voting EFF.

In a country where many citizens are gatvol, the EFF has succeeded in harnessing a spirit of anger and defiance and bringing it squarely within the ordinarily demure walls of Parliament. The DA has been left looking lackluster, square, even timid by comparison.

Former party leader Tony Leon summed it up in a column for Business Day this week. Leon described how he’d been in conversation with a now-retired female DA veteran (Dene Smuts, perhaps?).

The unnamed woman in question told Leon that she had been “listening on the radio to this ‘most articulate man … who perfectly captured my own thinking around (President) Jacob Zuma, Nkandla and the public protector’. Then, she said, ‘to my horror the interviewer thanked Julius Malema for the interview’.”

That “to my horror” is deeply revealing. There are likely other traditionally staunch DA supporters who have found themselves unwillingly drawn to the boldness with which Malema and his fighters have positioned their oppositional role thus far. Of course, this allure would have distinct limits; such voters would undoubtedly continue to view the EFF’s views on the economy as anathema. It is specifically the EFF’s anti-Zuma approach, and their vocal support for the work of the Public Protector – the two not unlinked – which might win them the plaudits of seemingly unlikely corners of South African society.

When Malema and his comrades shut down Parliament two weeks ago yelling “Pay back the money”, it was a brilliant piece of political drama – whatever you might think of its disregard for the protocols of the National Assembly. “Pay back the money” is a simple four-word chant which precisely encapsulates exactly what many ordinary South Africans feel about the Nkandla issue. The EFF sent a clear message: that they would not accept any more bluster, any more obfuscation, any more inquiries and reports and reports on the inquiries. Give us back the money you stole from us. Simple.

DA MPs are no strangers to delivering strong criticism of their political rivals in Parliament. But the effect tends to be more that of sarcastic clever-clevers at a debating union. DA Shadow Minerals Minister James Lorimer was in precisely this kind of form during Thursday’s debate. “The EFF so loves the poor that it wants to create millions more of them,” he drawled; just one in a succession of cutting bon mots. These Churchillian quips may be clever, and they may be shared and quietly enjoyed around dinner parties in Parkhurst and Newlands, but they’re hardly about to go viral.

Pay back the money. It’s not fancy wordplay, or a polite invitation. It’s something rather more like a threat.

And while the DA may disdain the thuggish element to the EFF’s rhetoric and Parliamentary behaviour, there are indications that they are picking up a trick or two. When Thursday dawned, D-day for the handover of the Spy Tapes, lo and behold, the DA had a catchy four-word slogan of their own: Give us the tapes.

Punchy, accessible – and it worked. The message dominated social media for much of the day.

When DA leader Helen Zille emerged triumphant from the North Gauteng High Court clutching the envelope containing the tapes, it was the EFF who suddenly seemed to fade into the background for the first time in ages. Years of strategic litigation – the kind that the DA has put increasing emphasis on in recent years – had paid off. Whatever is found on the tapes, there was no doubt that on Thursday, at least, the DA seemed to have regained their ground as the ANC’s most solid and convincing opposition.

A few hours later, in Parliament, Commander-in-Chief Malema was tabling the EFF’s first motion in the House, on the conditions of mineworkers. By the standards of the EFF, the proposal was not terribly radical: that a Parliamentary commission be set up to investigate the remuneration and working conditions of mineworkers. Malema delivered the motion, unusually, without extemporaneous swipes at the ANC. The effect, in fact, was rather placid.

When the DA’s Lorimer took aim at Malema’s “R18 million tax bill”, a little later, Malema rose to object that the tax bill was now only R1,5 million: hardly a resounding smackdown.

The EFF’s motion was overwhelmingly defeated, with just 18 ‘Yes’ votes, suggesting that seven EFF MPs were AWOL. The paucity of votes was a reminder of the EFF’s huge numerical disadvantage in this Parliament. Operating alone, they have precisely zero chance of ever getting their motions passed.

Not, perhaps, that the EFF minds much. Every motion that they table that both the DA and the ANC vote against is grist to their central mill: that the EFF’s very existence forces a realisation of the ideological convergence between the two largest parties when the chips are down. It’s a point that the EFF takes every chance to make. Rising after the vote, EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi suggested: “The DA can now join the ANC on the other side”. It’s not the DA they hope to discredit in this way, of course; it’s the ANC, a party of former revolutionaries now exposed as in thrall to white capital.

But in Parliament the EFF is likely to continue to bat above their numerical size in terms of sheer audibility. They achieve this through a simple disregard for Parliamentary protocol. If you observe a few Parliamentary sessions you will quickly learn that when an EFF MP rises on a “point of order” – a tool supposed to be used to draw attention to a breach in rules – more often than not there is no point of order at all to be raised. The EFF simply uses “points of order” to make themselves heard; the equivalent of someone grabbing the conch in Lord of the Flies.

If everyone behaved like this in Parliament, the result would indeed be the “anarchy” of which the ANC so frequently warns. But the frustrating thing from the perspective of the DA, whose MPs generally adhere obediently to the rules of the House, must be that so far, at least, it’s sort of working. Admittedly, we don’t yet know the outcome of the investigation of the Parliamentary committee looking into the EFF’s behaviour.

But on Thursday, for instance, an EFF MP rose to read a motion which had previously been objected to by the DA. DA whip Mike Waters in vain protested that the rules of the House dictated that such a motion could not be read. But House chair Thoko Didiza capitulated, with an air of resignation, and let it be read. One got the sense, justifiably or not, that Didiza was weighing up the potential toll of tussling with the EFF about yet another Parliamentary rule and simply decided to pick her battles.

However much the DA might publically dismiss the EFF as being empty vessels making meaningless noise, there’s little doubt that their arrival may force certain shifts in the blue party’s approach. The thought of more hashtags and stunts to keep pace with the EFF’s brand of political theatre may not appeal to party purists. But if the DA can marry certain elements of EFF strategy – accessible messaging, and an authentic sense of ownership of deeply-felt South African concerns – with their success at aspects like strategic litigation, the party may find it has everything to gain. DM

Read more:

  • DA needs to meet challenge posed by EFF’s antics, on BDLive

Photo: Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema (L) and DA Parliamentary Leader Mmusi Maimane are seen during a debate in Parliament on President Jacob Zuma's State of the Nation Address, Wednesday, 18 June 2014.Picture: GCIS/SAPA

  • Rebecca Davis
  • South Africa


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