After the ascent of Cyril Ramaphosa, several members of the commentariat suggested that this would put both the DA and the EFF in difficult positions. Some even went as far as suggesting that the EFF would find itself in quite a desperate position, as much of the source of their political attraction was inextricably linked with Jacob Zuma’s high crimes and misdemeanours. While the “red berets” have strongly disagreed with that assessment, and claimed that the party is now more relevant than ever, recent events appear to show that they are not correct, and that its leaders are growing more desperate: they need attention, they need political power, they need an enemy. The hunt is now on for a new enemy through which they can gain a real foothold in the national debate. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
In the months since Cyril Ramaphosa became leader of the ANC, the actions of the EFF could be summed up in this way: Julius Malema was able to propose a motion to expropriate land without compensation, the motion was changed by the ANC and then adopted by the National Assembly; the EFF has promised to remove the DA from power in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro municipality, and so “cut the throat of whiteness”; Malema has claimed that people from eNCA are taking over the SABC, and its deputy leader Floyd Shivambu has been caught on camera assaulting a journalist.
This is not the stuff that political dreams are made of. But what the party has managed to do is to keep itself in the national spotlight, to continue garnering attention.
However, it appears to be running out of targets.
The EFF is playing with fire with its claim that it will restore the ANC to power in Nelson Mandela Bay, because it could well fail to dislodge the DA (and considering that the ANC would also need a coalition to govern there, a chaotic result is much more likely, in which case a special metro election could be on the cards) and lose control of the entire process.
It has not even been able to convince the ANC on whom its choice of mayor should be. This means that Malema is taking risks, big risks. As has been pointed out before, he could well be punished by voters for installing a political party in power after previously running a campaign attacking them. Especially if this ends with a special election that he is to blame for.
If there is one thing that is always good politics, it is formulating the question. Malema has done this brilliantly in the past, and for much of this year so far. In 2011 he led an ANC Youth League march to Pretoria. The cause of the march was “economic freedom”, a phrase he popularised. If you hear someone use it now, it comes from that time, and is the result of his work. The EFF may now claim that it has done this on the land question, and that its proposal was the one adopted by the ANC. But there is also a sting in this particular tail: the EFF could now find that it has lost one of its key policy planks on the campaign trail. Whatever they say about land, the ANC can now claim that it is part of its policy too, and that it was ANC MPs who actually passed it.
Lost in all of this will be the important nuance that the EFF believes, seriously, that all land should be owned by the state. This particular idea is in fact incredibly revealing. Examples of countries which have managed to generate wealth, and provide for their citizens, but in which all land is owned by the state, are incredibly few, and would pretty much rely on debate around Chinese society. If you add the criterion of freedom to the qualification, you are likely to find no examples at all.
Which means you have to ask what Malema is really after. The answer to that is simple: power.
Power over everything. For himself. No one else.
There are many people who have applauded the EFF and some of its front-line members for their role in providing oversight during the Zuma years. That work may have been important. But it is hard to believe that the motivation behind that work was particularly noble. It was about gaining political traction in the quest for power rather than any lifelong commitment to bringing about a proper democracy in which all citizens are economically equal.
It is perhaps for this reason that the EFF now seems to be trying to play a different game. Aware of the power of being able to frame the question, its critics may now believe that it is in fact trying to gain the power to make certain definitions. Two weeks ago, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba testified in front of Parliament’s Public Enterprises Committee about his role in creating the Eskom crisis. Floyd Shivambu started by asking him about his nationality, in what was clearly a bid to claim that he was not born in South Africa, or that both his parents were not South African. This is xenophobia of the lowest order.
And yet, this kind of sentiment is exactly what many people now expect from the EFF.
If the party’s critics wanted to cite this crudely, it could go like this: The EFF is trying to make enemies out of white people, if you are white you are bad, but if you are black and you disagree with me, then you are supporting whites, and therefore, are not properly black. The EFF would strongly disagree with this but the historical record could well back it up. Malema has insulted many black people with different political views to his, often using the claim that they are somehow the agents of white people. Ramaphosa is someone who wants to “please white people”, while the ANC, obviously, “sold-out” long ago.
But the EFF itself could well argue differently. They could argue that their enemy is not white people per se, but simply racism. And that that racism manifests itself through white people resisting transformation, or treating black people in a racist manner. It could be an important nuance. And one that the EFF may have almost deliberately hidden in Malema’s public utterances.
All in all, it is obvious that to the EFF, identity is incredibly important. As Ismail Lagardien pointed out in perhaps the best piece written so far about the EFF, identity and victimhood are incredibly important to fascist organisations. It is often the publicly stated reason for their existence.
Something else they may share with organisations which are defined in that way is that they are simply not democratic, and do not tolerate voices that disagree with them. In this case, that means journalists. Shivambu’s assault of a journalist was only the latest in a long line of such cases. The party had previously threatened ANN7 journalists. If you go back to 2010, Malema, while leader of the ANC Youth League, actually used a former SARS agent to hack into the bank accounts of journalists. In that case, Piet Rampedi, while at City Press, had done incredibly important work linking Malema to corrupt tenders in Limpopo. Malema responded by using information from his bank account to claim Rampedi had been taking money for going after the then ANCYL leader.
Shivambu himself has a long history of this sort of thing. This is a man who formally apologised in court for calling a journalist a “white bitch” and then walked outside and claimed he didn’t mean the apology. And yet his party stood up in Parliament and praised judges for ruling against Zuma. He later called a Muslim journalist a drunkard, and lied over a paternity claim. In the end, a judge had to order a DNA test to prove he was the father. This is obviously a man who does not respect courts, does not respect the right of journalists to do their job, is happy to tell lies and does not tolerate any dissent. And he is the deputy leader of the EFF.
(The DA could well ask who would you prefer, the deputy leader of the EFF, or the deputy leader of the ANC?)
At the same time, one of the areas where the EFF is surely the most vulnerable to criticism is the lifestyle of some of its own leaders. Malema and Shivambu may claim to be pro-poor, but they have not in the past dressed as their constituency dresses. The watches and the belts are all evidence of bling. The EFF’s supporters claim that this doesn’t matter, that it is what they believe and espouse that matters, not their lifestyle. But how on earth can this really be the case? If you cannot judge politicians by how they act, how are you supposed to judge them? By their words? Seriously. This is politicians we’re talking about.
That kind of argument is like Johann Rupert claiming to be pro-poor while sitting by the pool in a Western Cape mansion with a vineyard out front. Malema would never accept it from Rupert, why should voters accept it from Malema? And Malema and the people around him have never explained where their money comes from.
The other key aspect to the EFF is that as a whole, like populists everywhere, the party rejects complexity. The land issue is incredibly complex. But questions around how it would be managed once it’s taken from white people are often met with the rejoinder that that doesn’t matter, it’s “our” land, and white people don’t get to even ask the question. However, that question is incredibly complex, as the example of the land owned by the Ingonyama Trust demonstrates. Like those who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU, complexity and facts don’t matter, it is the simple message that matters. And the messages are very strong and similar, “get our land back” here, “get our country back” in the UK.
The EFF is doing the most it can with the political space that it has. But it is in danger of finding that it has no real reason to exist except for the political ambition of the few people who lead it. However, in a country like this one, where many people are seen as conservative, there are limits to how far you can push the social fabric. Malema does incredibly well in framing the question, in defining the issues up for national debate. This can translate into political power, but it is by no means guaranteed. In the end, it comes down to voters. And the only time we will know how successful the party has been is in the 2019 elections. DM
Photo: Julius Malema (C), leader of South African opposition party Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), wears a worker’s hard hat as he exits Parliament after being asked to leave by the Deputy Speaker during a question and answer session with former president Jacob Zuma (not pictured) in Parliament, Cape Town, South Africa, 31 August 2017. EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA