South Africa

Analysis: EFF is still light years away from being a real political power

By Stephen Grootes 25 November 2013

As we live through a phony war ahead of real election time next year, Julius Malema is getting more and more attention. Sometimes it's claimed he's the Chosen One who will actually give the ANC the shock it needs. Sometimes, it's claimed he's the Real One that will lead a true revolution. Either way, it can look like he's gaining traction. STEPHEN GROOTES still doesn't believe he's going to make that much of a difference.

Over the last month Julius Malema has been the beneficiary of what most people would call good press. His good run effectively started with the news that his friend and advocate, Dali Mpofu, was leaving the ANC and joining the Malema-Freedom Fighters [Stephen, Stephen, we’ve had this discussion – Ed]. Then came the court case last week, in which he was able to stand up outside a courtroom, and make his usual kind and polite comments about President Jacob Zuma. And, towards the end of the week, came a series of reports that “black professionals” were looking towards the EFF, and were considering dumping the ANC.

Taken together, it leads to a perception that perhaps, just perhaps, Malema is going to turn out to be the real deal. That the EFF may well turn out to be the Economic Freedom Fighters after all, and that in fact, the sight of T-shirted warrior in Parliament may come to pass. One can imagine Max Sisulu’s frown when asked if a red beret is considered “Parliamentary dress”. Presumably, he wouldn’t ask for Lindiwe Mazibuko’s opinion.

But, in fact, the balance of probabilities is still against Malema and his party, for a variety of rather strong reasons. And some of those reasons have more to do with us in the commentariat than they do with Malema himself.

First off, it has to be remembered that one of the reasons Malema gets so much airtime, is that he is the real embodiment of that perennial South African middle-class fear, that poor and unemployed black South Africans with no hope will one day rise up and overpower their electric fences, and storm Sandton. This fear has a long and dishonourable history in our politics, and could well have its roots in the “Swart Gevaar” type of politics used by the Nats during Apartheid. It could even be argued that this was the basis for the foundation of legal Apartheid in the 1950s, as it was used by the Nats to beat the United Party in 1948.

The reality is that Malema, in or out of the ANC, is still the chief bogeyman of the middle classes (perhaps both white and black) and therefore he is going to be on front pages, no matter what he does.

Immediately after his court appearance in Polokwane last week, it was claimed that the delay in his case (it will now only be heard in September next year, well after the elections) was a wonderful gift to the youngster. It means he’s free to campaign without the fear of going to jail hanging over him.

Actually, no. No matter what this may mean legally, it’s bad news for Malema politically. His most powerful weapon is that he has been charged criminally. He has been able to use this to claim that he is the victim of Zuma and the ANC. He has tried hard to translate this into support for him. His narrative has been that he is the victim of an unjust legal system, that is being abused by his political enemies. As a result, he needs protection from the “masses” and if he prevails, they will prevail too. In other words, his legal problems and the economic problems of his supporters are intertwined.

This is a very similar dynamic to the one used to really powerful effect by Zuma himself, both during his legal problems in the run-up to Polokwane, and during the drama around The Spear image of what can sometimes be his most newsworthy part.

As a result, Malema’s court appearances would have been the best possible place for him to campaign. And if he gets less than a thousand people after an appearance in the Polokwane High Court, just down the road from his real political base, then what hope can he really have in the real world of rural South Africa, where his supposed base lies?

But that’s not Malema’s main problem.

Malema’s main problem is related to the fact that is simply not able to attract the right kind of cadre willing to take orders from him, and at the same time be constructive towards building his party.

The revelations in Daily Maverick today are only a symptom of that. In this case, people who were given leadership positions by Malema were involved in a gang rape case. While they were not convicted, the organisation they were in at the time, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, believed there was enough evidence against them to chuck them out.

A party like Malema’s is always going to attract people from other organisations, people who have not been successful where they were. So what we have is a group of people who are virtually unknown, who are hoping they’ll have better luck at the EFF. But they’re actually responsible for their own failure. It is the classic trap for a new party, and one that Cope also fell into to some extent.

And then we have one or two of Malema’s “trusted lieutenants” who left the ANC Youth League with him. Floyd Shivambu is, of course, the symbol of this problem. This is a man who admitted in court to calling a white journalist “a white bitch”, apologised under oath, and then issued a statement that “he didn’t mean it” when he apologised under oath. This kind of attitude to women is not a million miles away from the recent behaviour of some his colleagues, it would appear. Why would Malema feel he has to keep Shivambu on, if he were not actually desperate for someone he could “trust”?

The point is, it’s not just Malema who could be gaffe-prone in this party. It’s going to be half the people who come with him who will suffer from the same problem. He simply will not be able to attract the right kind of political talent.

It’s very important, in our politics, not to take what happens in the months before an election that seriously. All sorts of strange things happen. People start new parties, and claim they’re going to change the world. Up until this point, none of those parties have succeeded. The real trend in our politics is that to succeed, you need to show long-term growth, and create structure. This is why the ANC and the DA are still the dominant parties (obviously one a lot more than the other) and many others have fallen by the wayside.

The EFF hasn’t shown, yet, that it’s going to be any different. DM

Grootes is the Senior Political Reporter for Eyewitness News, and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. He’s also the author of SA Politics Unspun, which is available now.

Photo: Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema holds a news conference in Johannesburg on Thursday, 1 August 2013 on the outcomes of their recent national assembly. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA