Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 26 April 2018

EFF, 2019 Official Opposition?

If a re-alignment takes place, the EFF may take voters from the ANC, while the DA may shed voters to the ANC on the left and FF+/AfriForum on the right, and thereby lose its status as official opposition.

If we move beyond political economic or financial analyses, and focus purely on social or cultural norms, we may get away with saying that South African society is in the midst of a culture of fear, anger, disillusionment and anxiety. These actual conditions are probably best discussed by better informed people, such as psychologists or sociologists. We may conjecture, anyway, that the next general election may bring all these pathologies to the fore, and force a re-alignment of politics in the country.

The biggest (likely) shift may be this: If South Africa’s next general election were held tomorrow, or the day after, it is highly likely that the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) would become the official opposition in Parliament.

The EFF could achieve this mainly by stripping a large amount of voters from the ANC. The Democratic Alliance (DA) may lose voters to Cyril Ramaphosa, and to a more AfriForum-inspired Freedom Front Plus. If this happens, the DA and ANC would be much weaker, giving the EFF a surge. These are, of course, speculative claims, and not predictive. At the risk of boring the reader (for repeating myself), I leave predictions to prophets, prelates, psychics, boardwalk fortune tellers, and orthodox economists.

What, then, is the basis for this claim?

First, there are the numbers. There are literally millions of people around the country who live in precarity. The precariat.

Second, there is the EFF’s appeal to the precariat, on the basis that the ruling party has failed them.

Third, there is Ramaphosa’s appeal to the middle class, and to white liberals in particular.

Fourth, there is a dual movement of (likely) dissatisfaction among DA voters. This is driven by a slow but steady rise of ethno-nationalism, mainly among Afrikaners, who increasingly see their power, presence and voice muffled. Finally, there is a democracy fatigue driven by a loss of patience, and disillusionment, especially among the precariat white voters.

Let us start at the top. The numbers are startling. There are millions of people in South Africa living in stark precarity – even by the narrowest selection of measures. For example, by the end of 2017 there were approximately 5.8 million people who were unemployed. According to data provided by Statistics South Africa, and significant gains over the past 24 years notwithstanding, by 2015, 14% of households were in informal dwellings. The public health system provides access to 70% of households, and around 30% over the population (up from 12.7% in 2003) rely on social grants. Given the collapse of social services from utilities and healthcare to perceptions or real cases of corruption among the ruling elite, the precariat may be looking for better prospects.

This brings us to the appeal of the EFF. This appeal, or their persuasive power, is driven mainly by the EFF’s rhetoric and promises of a better life for everyone. We should be clear: the EFF has not carried the burdens of governance, and enjoys the privilege of being in opposition. In opposition, they are masters of rhetoric, in which they tap less into logic or the character of their leadership, than on the passion, that aspect of rhetoric that relies on manipulation of emotion.

What is clear from the almost hypnotic following the EFF is gathering – the blind faith and sacrifice – is that followers tend to respond to rhetoric in simplistic ways; they rely on stereotypes, caricatures or metaphors rather than cognitive processing. The EFF’s rhetoric provides a comfortable order of things, a hierarchy of haves (whites, coloureds, Indians and ANC elite), and have-nots (Africans who are landless, unemployed, poor, homeless – the people who make up the precariat). The EFF seem to be the greatest beneficiaries of the miseducation of South Africa’s young people, whom the ANC government has failed over the past two decades or so.

The EFF build their profile through ambulance-chasing politics. This type of politics entails rushing to every crisis, handing out criticisms and promises, seeking every opportunity to manipulate fragilities, exploit emotions – and building large promises on people’s fears.

This brings us to Ramaphosa’s appeal. The new president has significant forms of capital among loyal ANC members and increasingly among white liberals who may have been “put off” by the leadership of Jacob Zuma, for perceptions of cronyism, corruption, tribalism and for creating or presiding over a prebendialist state. For better or for worse, very many have not forgiven Thabo Mbeki for his Aids denialism, perceptions of African exclusiveness, and the quiet diplomacy of the Robert Mugabe era in Zimbabwe. Very many white liberals who may have voted for Nelson Mandela, and would have been sitting on the fence or default to the DA, may vote for Ramaphosa should an election be held this week.

The forms of capital I refer to is not the crude neoliberal adoption of “social capital” but a more complex set of attributes and values, ranging from social, cultural to symbolic capital. Ramaphosa is associated with the early years of Mandela’s freedom, the drafting of the country’s Constitution and his success as a businessman. It was Bertrand Russell, I think, who said that liberalism has a most intimate relationship with business….

While Ramaphosa has adopted a long view, there have also been decisive decisions which have resulted in immediate-term gains. Most notably among these have been stricter management and control of State-owned Enterprises, and cleaning up key state institutions. Ramaphosa has also returned to a more conciliatory politics (the symbolic capital of not being hostile and vituperative), and began to take seriously issues of investment, land reform and refreshing government. Conciliation, or seen as being too cosy with whites, gets the goat of populist factions in the ANC – which might turn them to the EFF. On the other hand, it might help the ANC shave voters from the DA, which may shift the (opposition) balance to the EFF.

The DA are, nominally, at least a liberal party. As explained previously, they are liberal like Tony Leon, and not like Thomas Paine. They are, nonetheless, home to a wide group of tendencies, an alliance opposed, in various permutations, to socialists, communists, African nationalists, black governance, what they perceive to be “the tyranny of the majority”, state intervention in the economy and, well, the ANC and EFF. Within this group there are otherwise decent people with noble intents, and more narrow-minded types who may hanker for a time when whites were paddling in a pool of white hegemony undisturbed, but for those pesky Nats. Whereas the ANC, too, is made up of many parts and tends to contradict itself, the DA has “the burden of history”. The DA may continue to be associated with the party that played the yin to the National Party’s yang during apartheid.

Whether one agrees with it, or sees any logic in it, there is a veritable rise in ethno-nationalism around the world, a desperate search for “purity” and a growing fear of a black planet. This is apparent everywhere; from North America, Western Europe, India and Pakistan, to Australia and South Africa. In South Africa, led by the likes of Dan Roodt of PRAAG and AFriForum, some whites, notably Afrikaners, are trying to retain their whiteness and the historico-structural privilege that comes with being white. In other words, one white beggar on the street is not evidence of the collapse of white structural power accumulated over centuries.

Nonetheless, it is this geist, shaped to a large extent by the Hegelian type of sense that we are becoming a multiplicity of cultures, and away from what we once were, as a culture, that may see the DA losing voters to the Freedom Front Plus. The latter is, essentially, the main political home of Afrikanerdom – not of all Afrikaners, many of whom are not purists or ethno-nationalists. For these reasons, the DA may lose votes to the FF+ to the right, and to the EFF, who, at various times, represent a mengelmoes of Marxist-Leninist and crypto-Fascist populism and bumper-sticker philosophies. Hence their reliance on the lack of cognitive engagement by their followers, and very many people whom our education system has failed so horribly.

Add to all these the filé powder (a key ingredient in Creole cooking), and we sit with a gumbo defined by what is described as democracy fatigue. This is the so-called gatvol factor. The precariat have seen no progress in their conditions, never mind the fact that they have remained loyal voters of the party that liberated them (we should probably add a trademark sign to that). The ANC has been coming apart like a train crash in slow-motion, and many of its Zuma-era leaders and office-bearers are in the wind, with only Ramaphosa holding on to any semblance of respect – which would appeal to DA voters with iron in their soul (for having sat on the fence for so long).

The DA is, arguably, the most ideologically consistent party in the country; they are expressly liberal, but have voters who are sincerely either fearful of a black planet, or would rather look back to what they were (that Hegelian fear of becoming something different from the past), and slink off to the FF+ – or, one may speculate, an AfriForum that shape-shifts into a political party.

It is under these conditions that a re-alignment may take place. If all this happens (and I would insist that this is speculative), the EFF may take voters from the ANC, the DA may shed voters to the ANC on the left and FF+/AfriForum on the right, and thereby lose its status as official opposition.

Among the outstanding lessons of transitional societies in Eastern Europe, after the Cold War, is that “democracy fatigue” gave rise to populist and authoritarian governments. If any of the above comes to be, the EFF has positioned itself as the government in waiting. The first, next stage, is assuming the role of official opposition in Parliament.

As a post-script, someone should keep a list of the disruptive and violent incidents that occur each time the EFF gets involved in public issues between now and the election. If anything, it would demonstrate what we may expect from an EFF government. DM

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