The most intriguing aspect of EFF leader Julius Malema’s Tuesday announcement that the EFF will no longer participate in council voting was the sense that the decision was taken at least partly as an act of political revenge — not just against the DA and the ANC, but against the South African electorate.
“When the whites are beating you up at the farms and you are being undermined by whites in the newsroom, you come here,” Malema told a press conference. “But when it comes time for voting, you are not there.”
He added: “South Africa chose the government they want.”
It was a strangely piqued tone to adopt for a party whose growth in every province was visible in its 10.8% vote share in the 2019 general elections.
A slightly more understandable cause of the decision was the collapse of talks between the EFF and DA regarding potential power-sharing arrangements between the two parties in the metros of Tshwane and Johannesburg. These negotiations have been running behind the scenes since the May 9 elections, and for a while, it appeared that the DA and the EFF were likely to reach a mutually satisfactory conclusion.
The DA hinted on Tuesday, however, that a potential stumbling block was the buy-in of the DA’s other coalition partners in the two Gauteng metros.
The EFF’s new decision was one of the outcomes of the party’s special meeting held on 1 July and its impact extends well beyond the contested metros of Tshwane and Johannesburg. The party has said it will not vote alongside the DA or the ANC any longer in municipal councils, but neither, apparently, will it vote with any other parties.
Although the EFF will attend council meetings and participate in debates, said Malema, “if anything requires voting, the EFF will abstain from voting”.
Though the councils in Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay have received the most attention in terms of coalition drama, they are just three of the 27 hung councils nationally produced by the 2016 municipal election results.
In a number of these councils, the EFF has no representation. In others, however, the nature of coalition politics means that even a single council seat can be sufficient to have a disproportionate impact in terms of determining which parties hold power or which issues are voted through.
The EFF has openly seemed to relish its kingmaker status in such instances — while refusing to be tied down to formal coalitions.
In an August 2018 statement the party said:
“The EFF reiterates its position that we are not in coalition with any political power, but will consistently and decisively use our strategic location and position in hung councils to advance demands that will benefit poor people, more especially the landless, homeless and jobless people”.
That policy has now, apparently, gone out the window — along with the EFF’s less altruistic ability to use its vote to dethrone or protect municipal leaders as it saw fit.
To give three recent examples:
The EFF voted with the ANC to defer the suspension of Tshwane city manager Moeketsi Mosola in November 2018 after misconduct allegations against Mosola by the DA;
In November 2018, the EFF and the ANC filed joint motions of no-confidence against the DA leadership in Modimolle-Mookgophong municipality; and
In March 2019, the DA and the EFF in the Fezile Dabi District Municipality united to try to force a controversial municipal manager to account for allegedly misallocated funds.
The decisions made on where the EFF placed its support in such cases at any given time has sometimes seemed whimsical — and, as the DA discovered to its cost in Nelson Mandela Bay, the Fighters were never reliable alliance partners.
As political analyst Nompumelelo Runji wrote in a column in the Sowetan in August 2018: “[The EFF’s] decision not to enter into coalition agreements means that it can act arbitrarily and on a whim and cannot be held to account for its actions even when its political stratagem is detrimental to the effectiveness and efficiency of local government”.
A statement from the DA’s James Selfe on Tuesday suggested, however, that the DA and the EFF have “enjoyed a harmonious relationship with councillors on a local level”.
This points to what may be the greatest damage inflicted by the EFF’s new decision: An end to the even symbolic possibility of co-operation across the political divide in the interests of putting the needs of local communities first.
In simplistic terms, the EFF has indicated that it is no longer willing to play nicely with political rivals of any stripe: A depressing, and potentially dangerous, message to be sending in a country already riven by factionalism of all kinds.
On a practical level, however, the most significant impact will be felt in hung councils where votes are necessary to pass vital resolutions: Most significantly, municipal budgets.
Analyst Peter Attard Montalto told Daily Maverick that the EFF’s decision was unlikely to plunge councils into imminent chaos.
“We are unlikely to see the immediate collapse of administrations until budgets are due,” Montalto said.
The tone of the DA’s statement on the matter seemed to suggest that the party fears that one likely consequence will be that the ANC stands to benefit most: Selfe wrote that the EFF’s decision amounts to “[choosing] to hand over well-functioning municipalities back to the corrupt ANC”.
Another consequence will be that other smaller opposition parties are likely to enjoy a suddenly elevated status now that the EFF’s kingmaker mantle is available to pass on. UDM leader Bantu Holomisa, for instance, said before the elections that his party would not rule out working with the ANC.
What is less certain is what the effects of the EFF’s hardline position will be on its own future electoral fortunes.
Cabinet announced recently that government has already started preparations for 2021’s local government elections. Will the EFF be able to entice large numbers of South Africans to vote for the party in that poll, now that the electorate knows that the Fighters intend to effectively sit on their hands in council meetings for the two years running up to it? DM