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Malema and the EFF failed to translate their populism into significant electoral gain

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

I was wrong in thinking that the EFF would at least replace the DA as official opposition or as actual local government in most local government legislatures and municipalities around the country. I was wrong to think that South Africans would be seduced by Malema’s rhetoric, that he would intoxicate them with his oration and that this would lead to votes.

I have been wrong about very many things across many areas of our social world. With the results streaming in as I write this evening, it is clear that I have been wrong about the EFF in the LGE21.

I really believed that it would do outstandingly well in the election. As for having been so wrong, I will paraphrase Cardinal Newman and say that I am perfectly happy to admit to the worst that can be said of me as a writer on current affairs; this occasion being that I was wrong. (Don’t ask me where I read that, I only remembered that he wrote something like that)

For what it’s worth, I have studied the EFF closely for about three or four years, and only Covid-19, my chronic lung problems and a battered immune system prevented me from travelling to remote places, digging into archives and gathering facts to strengthen or support all the information I had collected by the start of 2020… Nonetheless, there remains ample opportunity to make up for lost time.

The EFF is a fascinating study of a leftist organisation and its drift to extremist right-wing politics in the same way that Benito Mussolini started out as a socialist and ended up as a fascist, or the way that Juan Peron used his ersatz “progressive” political base of labour and the church to establish the ratlines — escape routes for Nazis after the World War 2. But that’s for another discussion.

With the LGE21 almost fully behind us, all bar the shouting, to which, I am sure, we will return once legislators return, the fact that the EFF seems (at the time of writing) to hover around the 10% mark overall may be a reflection of at least two things.

The first is that South Africans seem to not have the stomach for the EFF’s particular brand of contemporary fascism blended as it is with populism, race-baiting, name-calling and scapegoating. The second is that the EFF and its loyalists mistook performance for substance. To these, I would add that South Africa provides fertile ground for Julius Malema’s type of populism and politics of revenge, but it may be that South African voters are a lot smarter than we (particularly I) give them credit for.

Populism makes for good soundbites

Everything that the EFF has said and done in the weeks before the election has come from Malema. It’s easy to say that the EFF has come to resemble a cult around his personality. But there is an analogy (from my least favourite sport, baseball) I want to try.

Malema has been good at getting his followers on to first base, sometimes to second base, but he just could not bring it home. Not for want of trying.

Let’s stretch the analogy a bit. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I watched a few New York Yankees matches. Please don’t ask me why I went to watch them play, because I hated the sport. The truth is that I hated the spectacle; the symbols of national pride, triumphalism, gorging of junk food and excessive patriotism. For what it’s worth, when the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup it had absolutely no meaning or significance to me…

Anyway, the Yankees had among their ranks a “closer”, a pitcher called Mariano Revera. His sole job was to go to the mound for the last two or three innings (I think) when the Yankees had a lead and basically shut down any opposition efforts at beating the New Yorkers. Rivera is sometimes described as the best closer in the history of Major League Baseball

The EFF’s problem, it seems to me, is that it (Malema, actually) was quite brilliant when it came to winning hearts and minds, but it did not have a Mariano Riviera, someone to protect its gains and convert them into wins. We should be intellectually honest, the same socio-economic conditions (poverty, unemployment, distrust of international liberalism and dispute over lost territory) and disaffection with the peace settlement (in 1919) that gave rise to Mussolini, are somehow replicated in South Africa.

We have poverty, mass unemployment, a ready-made enemy in “white monopoly capital” our own version of 1920s Italy’s international liberalism, the loss of land and the dissatisfaction with South Africa’s peaceful political settlement of the 1990s. On paper, then, the country is ripe for populism which may account for Malema’s popularity. The problem is that the EFF could not translate that into “electability” — it did not have a Mariano Rivera.

The people necessarily have the ultimate say

Malema has a brilliant way of addressing crowds that verges on shamanistic — I’m probably being unfair to shamanism. Nonetheless, Malema has a way of almost intoxicating his audience and making it seem delirious with a toxic brew of racial hatred, revenge, vitriol, name-calling song and dance. However, what Malema seems to have misread is that the objective of institutionalising a particular rhetoric, hoping that it will shape a particular mode of thinking which will follow seamlessly into a particular mode of acting has not quite panned out. I hasten to add that there is time, yet.

The EFF’s brand of populism, and Malema’s drift into contemporary fascism alongside Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte and Victor Orban, should appeal to the poor, the unemployed, the disaffected, the homeless and the “anti-globalists” and liberal internationalists. But the electorate, small as it may have turned out to be in the LGE21, have had the ultimate say.

In some ways it is business as usual at the top. The ANC’s losses/gains, the DA’s losses/gains, the EFF’s marginal losses/gains, the revival of Herman Mashaba and the mushrooming of small parties may throw up some interesting permutations in lawmaking (and hopefully in governance).

What is clear is that for those who voted for populism and the EFF was just not enough, and any way, Malema could inspire people with rhetoric, but could not translate that into votes. Perhaps he took on too much, maybe he needed a closer, like Mariano Rivera, but it doesn’t matter — for now.

The basic point I have to make is that I was wrong in thinking that the EFF would at least replace the DA as official opposition or as actual local government in most local government legislatures and municipalities around the country.

I was wrong to think that South Africans would be seduced by Malema’s rhetoric, that he would intoxicate them with his oration and that this would lead to votes. I misread the electorate. DM

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All Comments 26

  • You’re not alone. I was also sure that they would put in a strong performance and that the DA would do poorly – especially since the only coverage they got from the SABC was negative (Phoenix and Cliff Central).

    Wrong on both counts, and happily so.

      • Agree. After the constant barrage of anti DAism, it’s good to see how well they did. On Tuesday morning a badly English speaking reporter from the SABC was still interviewing his selected ” members of the public” who were still going on about how bad the Cape is, how the party doesn’t look after the poor….and so it carried on.
        But will the DA ever satisfy the howling “Iliberal/ woke” mob in the media?

      • DM is becoming less of a news source and more of a propaganda machine. The day of me cancelling my subscription is coming closer and closer.

    • Mussolini flipped from Socialist to Fascist? That’s a very weird and distorted view of history.

      Mussolini “flipped” from being a Marxist Socialist (Internationalist) to Fascist (he was part of the Italian Marxist Party during his political adolescence) – he remained a socialist his whole life.

      The fact that it’s not Marxist Socialism doesn’t mean it’s not Socialism?

      Unless you’re playing fast and loose with the definition, Fascism is a distinct entity. It’s Nationalism, Syndicalism and Actualism. Syndicalism is Trade Unionism. Fascism believes in Corporatism (not a corporatocracy, which is what everything thinks the US is, which is just big business lobbying government for preferential policy). Corporate comes from the word “Corpus”, which just means Organ/Body. Coupled with the ideas of Fascism, it literally means Organ of the State.

      National Socialism is not Fascism (despite having similarities). NS is “Volk-Socialism”, race/ethnic-based socialism. If I can borrow a phrase from Comrade Stalin, NS is socialism within one race (rather than one country, in opposition to the internationalists of Trotsky).

      Stop using the Left/Right spectrum. It’s inarticulate and inefficient in explaining the complexities of politics.

      When you deliberately or undeliberately obfuscate terms, definitions and meaning, you diminish our collective ability to identify proto-radicals and combat their arguments when they appear.

      Great read nonetheless

  • The EFF is a one man band , plus a couple of would be imitators. Most Africans know who is their enemy is and it does not have a pale complexion. Most of the nation are waiting for the tooth fairy to come along and make it all better. Also Mussolini did the impossible in Italy , he made the trains run on time ! Meanwhile our train-set rails have been scrapped, literally!

    • I believe that this election once again shows that the majority of our population is centrist not radical. People want security in terms of personal safety, job opportunities, income & a future for their children. The ANC’s corruption, ineptitude & lack of delivery has shredded every thread of our social fabric.

      Don’t underestimate people’s astuteness, they know that it will be far worse with Malema & his EFF clowns. The low voter turnout says it all.

      As Abraham Linocoln said: ““You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

    • And that one man band criminal should have been in jail a decade ago.
      If he is convicted of even one of the many crimes he committed, he can no longer “serve” in parliament. The EFF will fade into the nothingness where their hatred belongs.

  • The question is why did you misread so badly when it’s patently clear what Malema is to any sane person. When does your misreading become misleading? I think Malema has done very well considering he can’t open his mouth without spitting hate, that he is as corrupt as hell and that no sensible person would ever trust him to lead, let alone vote for him. He has done very well and is assured of a massive salary for another five year of venum spitting.

  • perhaps malema’s ego will trim down now and realise that its not about insults, crassness and bad behaviour, but actually offering something tangible. initially he was the clown in the political mess but now he is a sad has been!

  • 10% of the vote still translates into substantial support. There are enough South Africans who support this fascist racist to be concerned. But I’m grateful that he shrunk.

  • I’m guessing that the majority of South Africans, this includes who voted and those who didn’t, do not want a Marxist, racially divisive and often abusive to any opposition type solution to the problems we face as a country. A similar guess seems correct to me if we look at the DA’s campaigning and public announcements. On governance record alone, the DA should have capitalised a lot better on the obvious to all failings at local government level. They also chose to focus on populist issues and suffered as a result.

    I’m actually quite impressed with the election results and participation levels. The message is clear. South Africans want better and our democracy is maturing rapidly.

  • I don’t believe that you over estimated Malema, but rather that you underestimate the intellect of your fellow South African citizens.
    Your poor judgement is not of Malema, but the voters.

  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. I thought the same, and in fact in some localised areas the EFF has increased their support. So I remain concerned.

  • Or maybe its just a simple case of the citizenry saw VBS and recognized Malema and co for what they really are: dishonest charlatans that cannot be trusted with public money.

  • Chief Prisoner in Waiting

    The EFF is entirely the making of the South African press. Nobody cares or take much note of them, but the press seems to think the opposite.

    • I agree. There’s a particular section of our press that is totally infatuated with Malema. I’ve noticed this trend in articles written by a number of younger black reporters particularly in Times Live & EWN, they give him an inordinate amount of column space & ” airtime”.

      Possibly he appeals to their inner-most wannabe pseudo-revolutionary fantasies?

      • They have learnt from Meta profiteer Zuckerberg, who knows that anger, hatred and misogyny ‘works’ ! And he will continue to push the lie that all he wants to do is make ‘communication’ accessible to ALL … all the while laughing all the way to the bank.

        • AND they take their cure from the gutter politics of the US, where a party which for the almost 40 years, has never won the ‘popular’ vote … BUT has been in ‘power’ for almost half that time, with gerrymandering !

  • I believe your misjudgement is rooted in the suppression of a general truth about SA: that relationships between the different races are, by and large, extremely cordial and respectful. Most Black folk are embarrassed by Malema’s racist vitriol and bullying bluster. The genuine non-racialism modelled by Mandela, Bizos, Tutu and so many others has taken root in the hearts and minds of more South Africans than the commentariat cares to admit. It is not a news-generating click-baiting sexy truth. Instead, the media and commentariat tend to focus on the occasional racial incidents that mar the generally peaceful race relations in our country..

  • populism has its limits as these nitwits need now to realise. see Zapiro’s brilliant cartoon. 70% of registered voters showed all the parties the middle finger!

  • Nowhere in the article or the responses is the role of the so-called intellectual/spiritual head of the EFF, who long before the VBS scandal, had ripped off the SABC for millions … and thus become the role model for the VBS shenanigans ! I wander who next they will identify for their next potential heist?

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