South Africa

Op-Ed: The EFF in opposition – the challenges ahead

By Jason Robinson 9 May 2014

Whatever the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) ultimate poll tally in this election, its toughest task will be mapping out an opposition path that leads to party growth and not gradual decline, as has been the fate of so many parties since 1994. By JASON ROBINSON.

With the crumbling of Cope (as well as a host of other smaller parties) and the failure of Agang SA to gain any traction with the electorate, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are – in theory – well-positioned to become an important political force over the coming five years. They offer a fundamentally different – and in many respects, more potent – challenge to the ruling ANC than the Democratic Alliance (DA), speaking to the same language and history of the liberation movement.

Such electoral potential was also true, previously, of Cope, the Independent Democrats and others that shot into electoral prominence and then fell into institutional decay. For the EFF, however, much will depend on its ability to manage a passionate, yet potentially unwieldy collection of voters and members. Much will also depend on its ability to turn tub-thumping into constructive engagement in the national and provincial committees its members will now occupy. The coming months – when Julius Malema will hope to avoid the sequestration case hanging over him – will be crucial for building on the momentum sustained during an impressive electoral campaign. The coming years, however, will tell us whether there is anything substantial really holding together the EFF.

When the story of the 2014 election is told, three crucial elements will stand out: Nkandla, the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) internal Agang-related fissures and the emergence of the EFF. Viewed with bemusement and scorn by many in the media when they first emerged in the summer of last year, the EFF gradually, and effectively, built up an electoral machine devoid (officially at least) of many of the resources Cope had when it challenged ANC dominance in 2009.

It has defied predictions that its support would come merely from disillusioned citizens on the margins of society, those least likely to have registered in time for this election, and in particular the unemployed youth of South Africa. The aim of the party has been clear for some time: to portray the ANC as a party that has, in the words of Commissar Floyd Shivambu, ‘degenerated beyond repair…ideologically and politically’ and to offer itself up as the ‘vanguard of the protest movement’ currently sweeping the country. The war-like, Soviet rhetoric, the iconic red berets and the mass rallies have all bolstered their visual and symbolic appeal with snippets of Fanonism, Pan-Africanism and Marxism blending into a surprisingly effective (albeit largely uncosted) manifesto. Julius Malema claimed 2014 would be the year of the Red Beret Election and in many respects, he’s been correct.

Keen to avoid accusations of merely being a ‘coalition of the wounded’ like Mosiuoa Lekota and Sam Shilowa’s Cope was in 2009, Malema and the EFF have cleverly put together a range of national and provincial figures previously within the ANC fold, but crucially looked further afield too – former student activists, those from Black Consciousness groups and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). As a result, the taint of ‘losers’ has never quite stuck to the EFF despite the ANC’s best efforts throughout 2013 and 2014 (in particular from the ANCs Secretary-General, Gwede Mantashe, who accused them of being puppets of Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF). The co-optation of Andile Mngxitama’s September Imbizo and gradual incorporation of smaller groups has been very effective and the PAC’s repeat-paltry showing in this election will make its eventual swallowing by the EFF almost inevitable in the coming months.

The issue now is whether the party can continue to hold the array of aligned groups together, including the support of the National Congress of Trade Unions (NACTU) which urged its members last month to vote PAC and EFF on 7 May.

Were Irvin Jim’s National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) to emerge with its prospective political formation later this year or in 2015, the position of the EFF would become precarious: no longer could it claim to be the only formidable alternative voice on the (ostensible) ‘left’ of the ruling party. It would be facing leaders tested in the union movement and well-versed in worker mobilisation. This is why the EFF’s plans to form its own union – already in progress in early 2014 – have become all the more important given its repeated (failed) attempts to formally align with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) right up until election day.

Whilst a showing of more than 6% nationally is an impressive feat for the EFF, it is less than what Cope managed but over double what the ID achieved – and the latter both had far less time to get a campaign together than the EFF. Malema and the party leadership are largely disinterested in opposition life in Parliament – but that is what awaits. For the leadership nationally and provincially, the party – much like the ANC – is a ‘movement’ and therefore the only real power that interests it is governing, not debating from the opposition benches and engaging in committee meetings. As Floyd Shivambu told me at the party headquarters in March, going to parliament ‘is a ceremonial thing’ for a new party and the EFF ‘organisation [is] more important than the parliament’. Indeed, he does not intend spending more than a year in Parliament – something he said might also apply to the Commander-in-Chief, Malema – insisting the EFF must focus on building up the party and a “new organisational culture” in the coming five years.

It may be that the EFF have seen how other opposition parties have faltered and wish to avoid a similar fate – but knowing it and achieving it are very different. Will its members come to see Parliament and institutions and places to debate and discuss remedies to South Africa’s problems or will it be all or nothing for the EFF: power or revolution? Their impressive momentum and campaigning throughout 2014 will now be severely tested in the months ahead: can it avoid members going back to the ANC after the failed promise of an EFF government, or heading to the NUMSA party if it is launched? Can it prevent the type of factionalisation and leadership splits that plagued Cope after its successful showing in 2009? Can it avoid the temptation of power, moving into alliance with others (as the ID did) which is normally a precursor to merger or disappearance? Few opposition parties have managed to avoid such problems post-election in South Africa, but Julius Malema has proven he is no ordinary politician and the EFF is no ordinary party: as Commissar for Economic Development Sipho Mbatha told this author recently, the EFF “are the chosen ones”. The next five years of South African politics will be very interesting, indeed. DM

Jason Robinson is a Doctoral Candidate in History at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is currently writing on the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) for the forthcoming Jacana book on the 2014 election.

Photo: Julius Malema (C) leader of the South African Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party addresses supporters in Atteridgeville, Pretoria, South Africa, 04 May 2014, during his party’s final pre-election rally. EPA/STR

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