It’s been a while since I have been as fascinated (yet somehow unsurprised) about the run-up to elections in South Africa as I am in these days and weeks before the 2021 local government elections (LGE21). If it were not promising to be an inflection point in domestic politics, I would refer to it as a mash-up of pantomime (with its customary demands for the audience to sing along) and pastiche, the desperate attempt to make like tricameral Parliament politics.
The electioneering has been in part entertaining, yet rather risible (hilarious, actually), and in part thrilling because the right questions are being asked, but nobody waits around to hear or provide answers.
What has stood out during the hustings so far is that the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) seem to be gaining traction, there is a focused personality cult around leaders (Cyril Ramaphosa’s smiling face, Julius Malema’s populism, John Steenhuisen and Herman Mashaba’s promises of misty-eyed optimism), and the wilful making of promises that most of the main parties know cannot be kept.
It is generally accepted that politicians make promises during electioneering that they themselves know cannot be kept. Yet, if I were a gambling person, I would put a fiver on the EFF to make significant inroads in LGE21. The EFF seems to have its finger on the pulse of those who remain trapped in poverty, unemployment, landlessness, homelessness. I will add a heavy caveat below.
Pitiful ANC and the DA Comedy Club
The ANC, other than Cyril Ramaphosa, appears rather pitiful and aware that it may not get back to the heights of the first 10 to 15 years of democracy. They may be in the death throes of the liberation days’ glory and moral high ground. It’s probably no surprise that books like Breakthrough by Mac Maharaj and Pallo Jordan are coming out to remind people of the ANC-National Party political settlement.
It is not unfair, however, to ask of the ANC, if they have not been able to rid the country of pit latrines or oversee well-run municipalities in more than 25 years, then what are the chances of them getting things done in the weeks and months after LGE21? Frankly, the ANC has squandered any and all goodwill that existed before 2007.
There is little to no evidence that the ANC has changed for the better. Over the past five years, the screwings and doings of some of its most prominent leaders and deployees (from Hlaudi Motsoeneng to Brian Molefe, from Malusi Gigaba to Ace Magashule) have flipped the ANC on its back and exposed its seedy underbelly.
They would have us believe that Ramaphosa can save the ANC – let’s take them at their word, but remember immanent critique (take them at their word and then measure what they have said against what they have done) – but it’s hard to come back from what the ruling alliance has become over the past 10 to 12 years. Again, if I were a gambling person, I would put a fiver on them losing key constituencies.
In the meantime, if the Democratic Alliance Comedy Club™ can’t stop making asses of themselves in the Twittersphere, and if they can stop producing and spreading sophomoric (cringeworthy) audiovisual products with John Steenhuisen as their main actor, and focus intensely (and honestly) on what they have achieved and where they have failed, they may be taken a lot more seriously.
At the level of perception, the DA Comedy Club™ appears to be working tirelessly to remind voters just how good things are/were when whites are/were in control. And then there is that subtle nod in the direction of the Cape secession movement, with Steenhuisen’s video on just how fine the Cape is when compared with the rest of the country.
The EFF creeping up on pole position
Very many journalists have defanged and lionised the EFF and their leader. This is reminiscent of John Gunther’s trenchant analysis of the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini and how some members of the media (mostly from the US) have fallen over each other’s feet to ingratiate themselves with Malema and his “fighters”.
“Most newspapermen and their editors cannot resist the flattery of conversation with a dictator or head of a state; once they have been received by Mussolini or Hitler they feel a sense of obligation which warps their objectivity. It is very difficult for the average correspondent to write unfavourably about a busy and important man who has just donated him a friendly hour of conversation,” Gunther wrote in 1936.
This notwithstanding, Malema is a master orator, exceptional at manipulating the emotions of an audience and creeping up on the political establishment like a thief in the night.
More specifically, and perfectly in character, Malema and the EFF take facts, necessities, truths and half-truths, and dice, slice, julienne and sauté them all, but we have to wait and see if there is a meal coming from it all – or whether it is simply the good old manipulation of the emotions of the poor, the marginalised, the unemployed, the disaffected and the desperate.
This much can be gleaned from a slick video put out by the EFF, in which they (correctly) state that “young people need jobs manje [now], namhlanje [today]” and that a woman (in the video) “needs to own the land her business is on”.
We have to understand that the EFF is basically correct in that demands for jobs and land are not terribly high expectations. What are high expectations, are to expect millions of people to continue battling unemployment, homelessness, hunger, need and landlessness. Then again, that Malema uses these problems to manipulate people’s emotions has distinct echoes with Benito Mussolini’s manipulation of emotions of the poor. Was it not he (Mussolini) who said: “If only we can give them faith that mountains can be moved, they will accept the illusion that mountains are moveable, and thus an illusion may become reality”?
This is not unlike Malema’s exhortations that people should have as many children as they like – because the state would pay them. With messages like this, he disseminates “faith” and loyal followers and alienated others would tend to “accept the illusion… [as] reality”.
The point is, I can promise anyone the moon and sixpence, but I’m not compelled to explain how I would actually achieve it. The “how” remains a mystery for now.
All of this notwithstanding, the EFF needs to get a chance to let people know what it is capable of; what it really stands for – the caveat here is that we should all keep our safety bunkers fully stocked. The fact is, the country desperately needs a good dose of susa zonke, that most potent of laxatives that should flush the politics of revenge, recrimination, violence and racial scapegoating out of the system.
For now, and in the electioneering process, Malema and the EFF look good on paper and on social media, but they would have to try harder where the rubber hits the road – when they have to provide public goods and services to black and white communities, and stop threatening pogroms against “non-Africans”. DM