Op-Ed

Writing the 2019 election: The EFF and its two-level strategy

By Ismail Lagardien 26 November 2018

Julius Malema, leader of the opposition party, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) addresses supporters at the launch of the party’s local election manifesto in Soweto, near Johannesburg, South Africa, 30 April 2016. EPA/CORNELL TUKIRI

So much of politics rests on perception – what people think or how they feel. When it comes to election predictions the focus should be less on specific outcomes based on abstract modelling, which tends to mistake the beauty of a model or a mathematical formula for truth, and more on how people feel, what they believe, and what values they treasure.

The trend of politics over the past week saw the ANC and DA stabilise, in a manner of speaking, and the EFF take a public beating that has been a long time coming. This public flogging notwithstanding, the EFF continues to chisel away at sectors of society, tapping, as it does, into disaffection and disillusionment with the status quo, while making promises that may, at best, be hard, and at worse, simply impossible to keep. At its base the populism of the EFF is less about finding actual workable solutions than it is about revenge and punishment. We can get to these issues later.

A brief discussion on “the science” of electoral forecasting may be helpful. It is difficult to accept claims of scientific validity on the prediction of electoral outcomes. There is, nonetheless, a veritable industry, and even “rigorous” academic efforts dedicated to predicting outcomes of elections, or how certain groups or individuals will vote. Universities and research institutions, from North America eastward across Europe and south to the Antipodes have programmes and list any number of “experts” on elections, voting behaviour and polling.

South African universities, too, have research teams dedicated to next year’s election, and have produced fairly reliable information that can help forecasting and prediction. But as with many things that may or may not happen in the future, the modelling used in forecasting and predictions do a better job, only, at making us feel better about ourselves.

Imagine, just by the way, how rich I would be if I could predict the future. The starting point in all “scientific” discoveries is always guesswork. The late, great physicist Richard Feynman once said:

It doesn’t matter how beautiful your guess is or how smart you are or what your name is. If it disagrees with experience, it’s wrong.” The 2019 election has not happened yet. Whatever we may guess, today, could, conceivably be horribly wrong.

Numbers are necessary, but insufficient

The media — conceived in its broadest sense — and journalists, in particular, spend enormous amounts of time, money and effort trying to predict things. Many careers in journalism have been made on these apparent powers of prediction. So much of politics rests on perception, what people think or how they feel. When it comes to election predictions, the focus should be less on specific outcomes based on abstract modelling, which tends to mistake the beauty of a model, or a mathematical formula for truth, and more on how people feel, what they believe and what values they treasure.

The idea whether something is true should, then, be evaluated against evidence — which presumes something has occurred — and if it has not yet occurred, beliefs, values and perceptions play as vital roles as “the numbers” in understanding the politics of electioneering.

For instance, a research report produced by the University of Johannesburg suggested that the ANC would get 53% of the vote next year, the DA 22% and the EFF 6%. The most common reason that respondents in the full sample of 3,447 gave for supporting a party was that they trusted the party (37%). This was followed by a belief that the party brought freedom and democracy to South Africa (35%), that the party would bring a better life (32%), and that the party is for everyone (28%).

These findings demonstrate that things such trust, beliefs and historical value can help explain facts, situate them and help explain the significance of facts or numbers. It remains to be said that nobody knows, for sure, who will win the election, and what the numbers will be. Whatever we may venture to say, even the most “scientific” among us (I am certainly not) would start, as Feynman explained, with guesswork. We can, however, turn to what we know has happened, and where we are, as a snapshot.

The EFF is in a funk, but it doesn’t seem to care

To everyone but its most loyal following, the EFF sank (again) into a valley of political absurdity. Last week the EFF resorted (again) to name-calling, insults and threats. And then there were those corpulent members in military fatigues which, when we consider that the country has a national defence force, that the ruling party has a “military wing,” and now the EFF has a paramilitary wing, suggests that we may be creeping to warlordism.

Of course, they EFF might not believe it is taking a beating, but denial and deflection — driven by measures of confirmation biases and cognitive dissonance — is what populists do really well. Adding to the almost operatic spectacle that is the EFF in public, the party and its leaders were accused of corruption and unethical pecuniary gain from the now collapsed VBS Mutual Bank. Last week Daily Maverick reported that the EFF and its president, Julius Malema, benefited from what has been described as the VBS Mutual Bank heist, through a crude scheme whereby funds were allegedly drained from the bank to the EFF and its leader.

The findings of this investigation have been a long time coming. They are consistent with findings of 2012, when Malema was charged with money laundering, racketeering, fraud and corruption, and when he allegedly used proxies and fronts in order to siphon illicit money gained through fraudulent state contracts to himself and his family. Malema has denied any and all wrongdoing. We should, in fairness, believe him.

A second part of the EFF battering came in the wake of Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan’s testimony at the Zondo Commission, when Malema referred to Gordhan as a “dog”. Also last week, his deputy Floyd Shivambu cast aspersions on Gordhan, and on his family. Malema also singled out individual journalists for allegedly being part of a subversive, and possibly seditious movement in the country. Malema referred to a Zondo Commission evidence leader, advocate Paul Pretorius, as a “bastard”.

Most will have cause for concern over Malema’s vitriol, but not the EFF’s loyal supporters. We may add to this his rally cry of “cutting the throat of whiteness,” and the ease with which he singled out South Africans of Indian heritage as being distinctly racist. We may recall, also, that Malema had a BBC journalist kicked out of a press conference, and that a leader of the EFF has referred to a journalist as a “white bitch”.

The media and the devil’s trick

To his most loyal followers, Malema is believed to be the saviour of South Africa. While the EFF has, over the past week, reverted to name-calling, incendiary statements and exhortations against journalists, the party seem undeterred. It continues to work at expanding its base. One notable example was the EFF’s meeting last week with black professionals, and his exhortation to build a black alternative before “crushing” white business.

The EFF also met small-scale farmers as part of its Manifesto Consultation Assembly meetings. The media would be foolish to ignore this two-level game of overtly attacking and snarling at everyone with whom it disagrees, while working the hearts of people. One way to understand the EFF is to recognise that it tends to act out, in almost biblical terms, the revenge fantasies for people who feel slighted and excluded.

For the media, there is a valuable lesson in Donald Trump’s victory in the US elections of 2016. When Trump was eventually declared as winner, the press went into deep introspection for having misread the election. Journalists followed too closely, it seemed, the models and “scientific” predictions prepared by clever people. So, wrote Isaac Chotiner of Slate:

Those of us who assumed, before the presidential primaries, that our institutions would surely spare us from frothing rage and bigotry were proven to be dangerously naïve. We have now lived through the rise and victory of Trumpism… For op-ed columnists and ideologically disinclined news reporters alike, Trump elicits a palpable disgust and a heretofore unknown variety of fear… Though many journalists recoiled from Trump, as an institution journalism failed to treat his rise with the seriousness it deserved. This is no longer an option”.

The ANC and DA have had a relatively calm week (apart from the president’s Cabinet changes, which, six months before a general election was always going to be ineffectual), the EFF resorted to type — snarling and gnashing its teeth — but quietly going about its two-level strategy.

Charles Baudelaire once wrote that the loveliest trick of the devil was to persuade everyone that he does not exist. We may need to pay closer attention to these matters. DM

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