EFF leader Julius Malema is a master at media manipulation, and the lead-up to the “national shutdown” generated huge attention for a small party. But when the day of reckoning came, Malema and his party suffered complete humiliation.
For their “national shutdown” to be successful, the EFF would have needed to mobilise tens of thousands of people in the major cities. Instead, there were only small protests – pathetically small protests. Even in their main event – the march in Pretoria led by Malema – they could, according to media reports, after a very slow start, only draw a medium-sized crowd.
The gap between Malema’s hubris – he was even speaking of a revolution in the days before the protests – and reality was vast. He is now exposed as a politician who is very good at winning media attention, mediocre at winning votes and completely inept at organising real support on the ground.
But the damage done to Malema and his party was not only due to the failure to mobilise on any sort of scale. The image of Malema and Carl Niehaus walking hand-in-hand in the Pretoria march would have been sickening to most South Africans.
Malema, who once said he was willing to kill for Zuma but then turned on Zuma when it was expedient for him to do so, is now openly allied with the self-described “Radical Economic Transformation” (RET) faction of the ANC.
Niehaus is one of the most nauseating figures in South African politics and Malema’s reputation, already battered by the EFF’s own corruption scandals, will now be in tatters.
Most South Africans have a deep loathing of corruption. The attempts by the Zuma faction of the ANC and its hangers-on – like the now defunct Black First Land First – to spin massive state looting as “revolutionary”, cut no ice with the vast majority of South Africans.
Malema has done himself serious, and quite probably permanent damage, by associating with the likes of Niehaus.
Malema will remain a player in our politics because the media always amplifies his relevance, and because the decline in the support for the ANC will mean that small parties can negotiate real power for themselves in coalition arrangements, and he is a canny operator.
But we now know for sure that Malema has no right at all to claim that he speaks for anything other than a small minority of South Africans, and that he has no capacity to mobilise on the streets at any meaningful scale.
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But while most South Africans will welcome Malema’s day of humiliation, the failed “national shutdown” should leave us very concerned. For a start, the highly militarised response of the state was disturbing. After Marikana, we cannot be sanguine about the sort of language used by Police Minister Bheki Cele and others in the lead-up to the EFF’s call for a national protest.
And no democracy can accept that the army should be used to police a protest. In South Africa, we all know what happened when the army was brought onto the streets during the Covid lockdowns. It was a disaster, and the ANC’s willingness to deploy the army against protest is deeply worrying.
The paranoia that was running out of control in the lead-up to the “national shutdown” was not only a middle-class phenomenon. Many migrant communities were deeply worried and some appealed to progressive organisations for support. This is understandable.
The EFF flip-flops on the question of xenophobia but has taken highly xenophobic positions at times, and its allies in the RET faction of the ANC viciously attacked migrants in the lead-up to the July riots.
But the way in which some middle-class groups armed themselves and prepared for war was also deeply disturbing. It shows an alarming decline in faith in the state, and raises the real risk of vigilante violence. There is a sense that South Africa is splitting off into antagonistic groups, some armed.
This does not bode well for our future.
The failed “national shutdown” was also a day of disgrace for some factions of the South African left. While the larger mass-based organisations of the working class and the poor refused to support the EFF’s day of protest, some of the tiny but vociferous sectarian organisations on the outer fringes of the left offered their support to the action.
Of course, this support was in the form of statements and not people on the ground, because these organisations have no mass base. But for the left to support a march led by Malema and Carl Niehaus walking hand-in-hand is a staggering error in political judgement. Nobody in their right mind considers the EFF or the likes of Niehaus to be on the left. Their politics is the authoritarian populism of a kleptocratic political class.
Zwelinzima Vavi’s reputation also suffered a heavy blow as a result of his support for the EFF action. His standing has been declining for some time now. He has a history of poor political judgement and political opportunism. We must not forget that, along with Malema, he also threatened to “kill for Zuma”. Since then there have been sexual harassment scandals and xenophobic and Islamophobic statements.
In the union movement, he is widely seen as more aligned with a group of NGOs than with worker formations. But for Vavi, putatively a man of the left, to support a day of protest led by Malema is such gross opportunism that it is difficult to see that his reputation could ever recover.
Vavi has turned out to be as much of a political chameleon as Malema himself, having followed a similar trajectory of support for Zuma, then a turn to critique, and now a drift into an alliance with the most corrupt elements of the ANC.
Moreover, just as Malema failed to mobilise, Vavi was also unable to bring members of Saftu-affiliated unions onto the streets. A leader with no supporters is not really a leader and the sun has probably now set on his political career.
In a way, it is almost surprising that, despite the massive media coverage leading up to the EFF day of action, it attracted such desultory support. South Africa is in such a deep economic and political crisis, made concrete to us all by mass unemployment, load shedding and Cyril Ramaphosa’s failure to lead, that it seems logical to assume that almost any sort of spark could ignite mass protest or even mass riots.
Political experts have been warning of an Arab Spring-like event for years, and the July riots showed that nihilism and destruction can also emerge from a crisis. An unanticipated event could still spark another round of rioting, or a charismatic populist could emerge to do what Malema has failed to achieve, and put the spark to the tinder.
We now know that Malema does not have the capacity to win mass support on the streets or to spark an insurrectionary moment.
But this does not mean that that moment is not coming.
If it does come, we do not know whether it would simply take the form of politically aimless looting; if it would take the form of xenophobic violence, or if it would take the form of some sort of progressive demands.
We urgently need a new political party that can inspire us around a vision for a better country, and we urgently need the sort of political force that can organise millions of people around a progressive vision for a country.
Those of us who are old enough can remember the days when Cosatu and the UDF could organise real national shutdowns, with tens of thousands of people on the streets in cities across the country. We need to recover mass democratic politics. DM