Political leaders cannot take the expansion — or even the survival — of their parties for granted. It is little wonder members of the EFF are reflecting on the “growth trap” in which their party seems to be caught.
The initial takeaway from the provincial and national elections in May was that the EFF is still a growing party. Nationally, it secured a little over 10% of the vote, up from 8% in 2016 and 6% in 2014.
It scaled some new heights: 13.5% in traditional stronghold Gauteng, 17% in the North West and 13% in Limpopo. It also achieved nationwide appeal for the first time, with major inroads in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape. In the former, an EFF vote of 1.9% in 2014 was converted into a remarkable 10% in 2019.
This achievement rested in part on investments in party branch and regional infrastructure in hitherto underperforming provinces, which in turn reflected a determination to escape the regional and ethnic confines of its early supporter profile.
Set against these gains, however, the elections also revealed significant limitations. Moving from 8% to 10% is significantly less impressive than rising from 6% to 8%.
In KwaZulu-Natal, the EFF benefited from disaffection among Jacob Zuma’s devotees and made headway in the urban south. It also benefited from anti-Indian and anti-white racism, which ultimately repels as well as attracts voters.
Communications commissar Mbuyiseni Ndlozi was indispensable to the KwaZulu-Natal campaign. Most regrettably, there is only one Dr Ndlozi, and his popularity so threatens the senior most leadership that the “ice boy” has been obliged to adopt a deferential demeanour whenever party royalty are present.
Nationally, the EFF should have harvested a far greater catch of first- and second-time voters. As Collette Schulz-Herzenberg observes in a recently published volume Election 2019, there are now almost 12-million potential voters between 19 and 29 years of age, compared with just 6-million in their 30s and the same number in their 40s.
Just under half of the “voting age population” as a whole — those entitled to register and vote — actually cast a ballot in 2019, down from 86% in 1999. But only a third of those aged between 20 and 29 did so. This contrasts with 77%-78% participation of citizens in their 50s and 60s, who continue to vote strongly for the ANC and DA.
This poses a dilemma for the EFF. Its leader’s populist diatribes — decrying established institutions and rubbishing conventional parliamentary politics — keep its existing base mobilised but discourage the registration and turnout the party needs to grow.
While the EFF has set the political agenda in fields such as youth unemployment and land reform, its uncosted manifesto pledges remain largely symbolic. The rather sweet invocation of Thomas Sankara and Frantz Fanon in party documents reveals the middle-class intellectual cocoon in which the leadership’s ideas were incubated.
The party’s support base is disproportionately male, which is an ongoing handicap when it comes to longer-term electoral success. As Benjamin Roberts notes in Election 2019, despite formal “gender parity” in party structures, only two members of the central command are women. The EFF continues to be plagued by sexual harassment allegations and by the patriarchal and militaristic culture personified by some of its senior leaders.
The EFF has few jobs or contracts to dispense and its programme does not appeal to “established business”. Resultant money shortages have encouraged dalliances with alleged cigarette smugglers and bank looters, political liabilities worsened by the conspicuous consumption of the less intellectually gifted members of the central command team.
The result of all this is a growth trap. The EFF’s current mobilisation strategy depends on the person of Julius Malema, appeals to the youth, bookish policy utopianism, self-indulgent masculinity, and a devil-may-care attitude to funders.
To secure enough votes to govern cities or provinces, the party needs disruptive and discomfiting internal change: consistent support for constitutional norms and political institutions, more transparent funding, less unrealistic policy proposals, and a retreat from militarism and patriarchy.
• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town. ‘Election 2019’ is edited by Collette Schulz-Herzenberg and Roger Southall and published by Jacana Media.