South Africa

The economic debate: EFF takes centre stage – but for whose benefit?

By Stephen Grootes 4 April 2014

On Thursday evening Talk Radio 702’s Money Show hosted a town hall debate with major political parties about the economy. There was some food for thought, some frustration, and at the end, some booing. There was, you might say, something for everyone. The ANC was represented by the Gauteng MEC Qedani Mahlangu, the DA by Tim Harris, and Economic Freedom Fighters by that well-known student of economics, Dali Mpofu. STEPHEN GROOTES was working the audience.

On the main stage, the party representatives all seemed to choose a look that represented their organisations. Mahlangu was confidently dressed in a sort-of business garb, with a stylish scarf, a look that screamed establishment. Tim Harris did the Ray Donovan, the tie-less white shirt with an open jacket. And Mpofu wore the usual uniform, complete with red headdress. (I wonder when he was last pictured without it.) Oh, and Agang sent a few people who debated amongst themselves before deciding who would speak on their behalf. All of the speakers’ expressions during the debate were fascinating. Mahlangu just shook her head, almost in wonder, when listening to Mpofu, and during the breaks they laughed and jibed at each other. Harris was the cool, confident guy with a smile that lit up the room [Oh, not you too – Ed].

There’s usually a pattern to this kind of debate. Everyone gets some time to set out their stall, then there are questions, and then the games begin.

By the time the speakers had all finished with their policies, it was obvious who was winning the Twitter war. As always, it was the EFF. Mpofu was talking about radical change, nationalisation and all the usual stuff one associates with his leader (and sometimes client). Harder to work out was whether most of that chat was people hugely in favour, or just those hugely frustrated at what he was saying. Mpofu has a very expressive face at times, when he’s frustrated at what someone is saying, there’s a slight tendency to bite his lower lip. Whenever Mahlangu started talking about the ANC’s job creation policies, that lip got almost bloody, as his head moved from side to side.

South Africa is not really a place where economics dominates the political discussion as much as it should. This is for various reasons. Firstly, we’re no different from many other places; secondly, economics is often perceived as boring and thirdly, not everyone understands it. This means that politicians can perhaps get away with a lot more than they would in other countries.

From a strict economics point of view, Harris was the clear winner. If you are the EFF representative on a panel, Harris is not the person you want with you. He will demolish you, and smile as he drives the stake through your heart. To watch him after Mpofu was the spectacle of the hour. But it was also too easy, because all he had to do was ask how they were really going to create jobs, and what would happen the day after all the farms, mines and whatever else were nationalised.

Part of all of this was a nice little debate about why miners in South Africa are paid so little compared to those in Australia and Canada, when the metal that’s coming out of the country is priced on international markets. It was a side-shaft that took us to mechanisation, the role of the miners in different countries, and whether one is mining narrow seams and wide seams.

By this stage, there had been plenty of heat, but not much light.

And still it was Mpofu and the EFF that garnered the most attention, and the most discussion on Twitter.

In most political debates, the party that is the incumbent can expect to face questions about why things have gone wrong. And in a week that’s been deluged by outrage over Nkandla, you would think Mahlangu would be the person with the most heat to face, as the face of the ANC. Instead, Mpofu was the person who ran into the most trouble, mainly because of the radical nature of the policies he’s putting forward.

You have to wonder at this point if there isn’t a lesson about the election as a whole here. Just two months ago, all commentary one could read about the elections 2014 was about how the ANC was under the most pressure since 1994. Then came Nkandla, which should only have added to that pressure. But now, it seems as if the EFF has successfully hijacked the non-Nkandla part of the discourse. It is what everyone is talking about. To many, its not the issue of whether the ANC will get 60% anymore: now they ask if the EFF will get 10%.

In a way, that’s probably more of a comment on how close the ANC and the DA are from a policy point of view, compared to the EFF. They’re the new kids on the block, and therefore the most fun. But in terms of the bigger picture, there is simply wrong that they should be setting the national debate, and framing the question. Even if you think they’re going to get 10%.

And now to the reason you’re still reading towards the end of this piece. The booing.

It came at the end, when one of the audience members asked about leadership. He wanted to know if both the EFF and the ANC had backup plans in case some legal difficulty confronted their leaders. Mpofu muttered about how Julius Malema would be fine, and that the case against him wasn’t that strong.

Mahlangu was different. Showing real vigour, she said simply, “There is no crisis of leadership in the African National Congress.” There was a loud “haw” from the audience, and suddenly, booing. The point was well made. To speak about President Jacob Zuma in political debates is probably going to invite booing from now on. There is simply no way around it. The tactic that the ANC itself started to boo other leaders, then to boo them on the international stage at the FNB stadium, is obviously going to be appropriated by opposition parties. And when these parties meet the ANC at multi-party events, booing is going to be the result. We could even find that booing morphs from being an anti-Zuma statement, to simply being an anti-ANC statement.

You could certainly imagine Malema starting a rally with a good, hearty boo.

In the end, the best line of the night went to Mpofu, who, when asked about leadership in the EFF, turned it neatly on the ANC. “Their leadership strategy is [to] go from the Nkandla-man to the Marikana-man.” Very nice, Dali, very nice indeed.

However, the political analyst Ralph Matekga, when asked to round things up, said: “This was a round-table of concurrence. You have the ANC, that’s been tinkering with the ANC for twenty years. You have the DA, that wants to tinker with it here and there, and you have the EFF, that says ‘Give it to me, we’ll redistribute it…’ They don’t have an economic policy, they have a distribution policy.”

But in the final analysis, it seems that one of the roles Malema is actually playing, presumably unwittingly, is shielding the ANC from some of the questions that should be answered. The middle classes would normally, you would think, be completely seized only with the Nkandla scandal. Instead their attention is being diverted to their main fear, Malema.

In whose favour does that work, then? DM

Photo: Dali Mpofu of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) speaks at a news conference in Centurion on Thursday, 13 February 2014 on provisional sequestration of party leader Julius Malema. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA


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