Opinionista Paul Berkowitz 31 July 2013

What is to be done? A song in the key of EFF sharp

In a week or so I will turn 35 and thereupon lose my political right to be called a youth. Don’t cry for me, Azania, I would have made a lousy politician. Despite the weight of my advancing years I still have some lead in my mshini and pieces of my mind to be doled out like so much birthday cake. To paraphrase the late Whitney, I believe the youth are our future, and if we’re not going to teach them well then we’d better get out of their way.

I wasn’t close to being old enough to vote in the 1994 elections, although I would have if Mandela had succeeded in lowering the voting age to 14. I just missed the cut in the 1996 elections but I had no excuse for missing the 1999 and 2000 elections. Until the age of (at least) 22 I was largely apathetic. Or catatonic, I don’t remember.

From 2004 onwards I have been a regular participant in democracy, showing up at various stations to vote. I remember voting for both the ANC and the DA at least once, and at least one small single-platform party that has since disappeared from politics. Beyond that, all the names and logos blur in my mind, like some protean MacDonalds menu.

So many quickies up against the voting booth walls, so many autumn flings that ended abruptly. I would wake up alone to promises via SMS: ‘Call me. X.’ Of course, my calls went straight to voicemail.

It didn’t really matter. I’ve voted out of a general sense of duty, I’ve voted strategically and I’ve voted on a whim. I was never emotionally invested in the outcome of any election; I never needed to be. When the great machinery of society is geared in your favour, democracy is an optional extra like the toppings at the end of the Wakaberry conveyer belt.

However, if you’re under the age of 35, unemployed, undereducated, if you weren’t lucky enough to be born into the one-in-five (or one-in-ten) households with savings, education, enforceable property rights, three square meals a day, four solid walls and a roof, you probably aren’t able to appreciate ironic detachment.

It’s tough out there. The coat of privilege is lined with fur and the t-shirt of poverty is thin. The Highveld winter is vicious but, almost twenty years into democracy, there’s still not that many coats to go around.

Next year, around election time, we will turn twenty. Too many of us will experience democracy as a farce or a tragedy and not enough of us will be able to appreciate the irony, cocooned in our coats. If you are reading this then you probably own a winter ensemble, just like me. You’ve broken free of poverty’s gravitational field, or you never knew it in the first place.

Good for you. Nobody wants to struggle through this life and still remain poor. But spare a thought or two for the growing number of South Africans who aren’t lucky enough to appreciate democracy as an abstract. They are tired of gnawing on the dry bones of doctrine and they want to taste the meat.

In my sojourns through social media I’ve made friends with a number of people, people I would never otherwise meet and still might never greet face-to-face. I’ve been exposed to views and ideas that I didn’t seek out.

A couple of my new friends are considering voting for the EFF. One or two are active members in the organisation. Do they represent the average party member? I don’t know. I agree with very few of the EFF’s economic policies but it’s easy to see why the party appeals to so many people.

The jokes about the party write themselves, with leaders like Malema, Shivambu and Kunene. One of them looks like a photo negative of Uncle Fester Adams. Another looks like a deranged mushroom from Super Mario Bros, with his red beret jammed tightly on his head.

I’m sorry. I must get my low blows in before I become an adult and put away childish things, like Saint Paul of the Fishes, formerly Saul of Tarsus. Or is that Kenny of ZARsus? I digress.

You see how easy it is to ridicule a nascent party based on a few figureheads. We of the chattering classes have jokes for days about dumb poor people. I mean, who else is going to vote for them?

Maybe the people who don’t have work or the prospect of work ahead of them. That’s just north of seven million adults according to the latest labour force survey, most of them still technically youths.

Maybe the people who haven’t seen a benefit from GEAR, ASGISA, state education, BEE deals and inflation targeting. The people who saw construction company executives fake collective amnesia when asked for a few HR records. The people who haven’t won the Lotto yet. The people who are tired of waiting.

Maybe even a handful of people who can’t find comfort in their own comfort because too many others are going without.

I can’t claim that my EFF friends are representative of the party’s growing fan-base. The plural of anecdote is not data, et cetera and so forth. Still, let me show you the nuance I see.

My friends are not in thrall of the big names in the party. They recognise that the party is not Julius, Floyd or Kenny and that these men are not the party. They seem (to me) to be committed to the cause of radical economic and social transformation. They are focused on the potential of the party to achieve this transformation.

They are educated and economically literate people. Personally, I think that most of their policies are wrong-headed (although I strongly support greater economic integration with the rest of the continent, just as they do). While I disagree with their prescriptions I find their diagnosis compelling: those in power have failed the majority of the people and the people have in turn lost faith in those in power.

What is the EFF’s potential outcome at the polls? That depends on a number of boring parameters like voter registration, lobbying and so forth. If you’d asked me a month ago to estimate the party’s successes I would have pegged its share of the national vote at 3% in next year’s elections. At the moment I’m leaning towards 4% – and I only see that number increasing.

Assume for a minute that the party takes 15 or 20 seats in the national assembly (and hold the jokes about sushi and whisky deliveries to Plein Street). Is this likely to make national politics more or less radical? What if the ANC needs those votes to pass legislation? What if the DA needs the votes to block it?

What makes you feel warmer this winter? The idea that this vehicle of the disillusioned and disaffected will fail at the polls, or that it will succeed. Do you prefer a future where those agitating for change lose hope in the democratic process, where their anger has no legitimate outlet? Or a future where they have a focus and a platform, and your comfort is threatened?

Experience and cynicism tells me that the party’s influence on policy won’t be that great, and the first scenario is more likely. We can keep cracking jokes while those around us grow more angry because, like Alanis Morissette, they don’t understand irony.

Maybe I’m feeling my age, but that scenario grows less appealing to me every day. Maybe there’s a third way, where we have an honest discussion about what it will take to make the lives of the majority better, where we discuss the meaning of real compromise and justice.

I don’t know if I can wait for that happy day to come. I’m not as young as I used to be. Keep warm and keep smiling. DM


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