Opinionista Stephen Grootes 25 September 2014

EFF’s rise: When and how will the Empire strike back?

If you had to pose the question who has benefitted the most politically since the results of our elections in May were announced, there could really only be one answer. Despite the overwhelming majority for the ANC in that poll, despite the growth in the DA’s number of seats in the National Assembly, it is surely the Economic Freedom Fighters who have made the most of the running. If politics is indeed perception, then they are the outright winners. But for how much longer can they keep this up, and will they really continue to succeed in framing the questions so successfully?

The transition of Julius Malema from the nation’s favourite Young Lion to guerrilla warfare warrior has been truly fascinating, even though it hasn’t necessarily been a very long road. The Malema who led the ANC Youth League isn’t that different to the Malema who promised to never start his own party, and then did. However, being commander-in-chief of his own destiny has allowed him to act with more freedom. And he has used this freedom to its fullest extent.

Malema has brought Parliament to a standstill, managed to actually force the Gauteng Provincial Legislature to use violence to remove his cadres, and been an obstructive force in various committees.

In short, he has used what you could call asymmetric, or guerrilla, warfare. He has got as far as he has by breaking the rules. By exhibiting behaviour that has never been seen before in our public forums, he has managed to use the virtue of shock to make headlines.

However, this is a tactic that surely cannot work forever.

In conflict situations, the biggest successes of guerrilla or even terrorist organisations are usually their first successes. Because no one knows what will happen, the shock of that first big event or attack is the greatest. After one has happened, the shock, while certainly present, is less, well, shocking. The same is beginning to happen with Malema. No one had seen someone refusing to leave the National Assembly. The Gauteng Legislature had never seen armed police forcing its members out. Now we have all seen it, and we will come to expect it. As a result, the shock value is now much less valuable than it was before.

This is likely to force Malema and the EFF to consider their next moves. One of the reasons his tactics have worked so well is that the constituencies represented by the ANC and the DA would not respect their representatives acting as the EFF has. This constrains these parties’ range of actions, especially when compared to the EFF’s free for all approach. But there are limits, even for Malema. Every constituency, even his own, has its built-in limits and he must be careful not to breach them.

At the same time, his political opponents have also behaved in the way they did because they weren’t expecting it and might actually learn from their own mistakes. National Assembly speaker Baleka Mbete’s admission to the South African National Editors Forum this week that she “lost it” when the EFF behaved as it did demonstrates how unprepared she was. That won’t happen again. Next time around, she will be expecting this kind of behaviour, and will probably react differently.

In most political situations, the ANC would have viewed the party with the second largest number of seats as its biggest threat, and behaved accordingly. At the moment, it seems the EFF has put it under the most pressure. As a result, Luthuli House is likely to start looking for ways to put the EFF under pressure. Considering the political brains trust that it has, in people such as Gwede Mantashe, Jessie Duarte and of course President Jacob Zuma himself, one can easily imagine them planning several traps for Malema. It could help of course that they have intensive experience of him directly, and thus know what his pressure points are likely to be.

One of the easiest ways to damage Malema is surely to find ways to sabotage his party. The EFF hasn’t yet had a proper national conference. We all know that conferences are ripe for all sorts of political naughtiness. It would not be beyond the bounds of imagination to consider that there is a group of very experienced people ensuring that the outcome of that conference turns out to be more in the best interests of the ANC, than of the EFF. At the same time, it must be remembered how vulnerable the EFF actually is. While the party appears to wear red uniforms when it suits its MPs, the fact is many would surely find a lifestyle audit quite difficult. Look out for pictures of EFF MPs working hard for the poor in the poshest nightclubs in the country, coming soon to a media outlet near you.

And then there is Malema himself. A major problem the EFF could face is what would it do without a leader. Organisations with elected representatives and proper structures tend to survive the loss of a supreme leader far better than organisations with unelected commanders-in-chief. (EFF will hold its first congress in December 2014) It somehow seemed almost unfair to say before the elections that the EFF was really a one-person party. But several months on, it’s hard to think of anyone who’s really made a strong political impact, without raising his or her middle finger. It is often forgotten that Malema faces serious corruption charges. The claim is that he manipulated provincial government tenders in Limpopo. We may even find that the Limpopo textbooks scandal is somehow linked to him in the long run. Being accused of stealing from the poorest of the poor, and denying children education is unlikely to make his party a viable vote getter long-term.

When guerrilla conflicts start, the establishment forces often change their tactics. Sometimes that change is effective, sometimes it isn’t. But it does usually put the guerrilla movement under pressure. In politics, like rugby, pressure matters. And it’s in how the EFF responds to this pressure that will determine whether it can really continue to have an impact.

The strong reliance on Malema obvious charisma could well prove fatal weakness for the EFF. It is, in a way, about supply lines in a conflict. You need more than one person, one totem. Without Malema, the party could come perilously close to becoming an ex-party, to ceasing to exist.

Up until this point the EFF has had it relatively easy. Behave badly, use shock tactics, and make an impact. And don’t start thinking about tomorrow. It may soon have to think again. DM



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