ANTHONY BUTLER: The EFF: independent political party or ANC Youth League faction?
The EFF is full of sound and fury ahead of the 2019 elections, but it may all, ultimately, signify nothing
The EFF’s claims that its Commander in Chief, Julius Malema, fired a pop-gun at the party’s fifth anniversary rally in the Eastern Cape last weekend, captured the party’s overall predicament well. “It was not a real gun,” national spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi insisted. “It was a simulation which collaborated with the fireworks … it was a toy.”
Critics have long denigrated the EFF as an army without any real soldiers. Some still claim it is an ANC Youth League faction that treasures its toy-telephone link to the real liberation movement.
There can be no dispute that the EFF has exercised influence in South African politics. It has placed land reform and youth unemployment at the top of the political agenda. It has rejuvenated Parliament, replacing the decorum of the Mbeki era with gripping political spectacle.
The EFF’s strategic dilemmas, however, were exposed by former president Jacob Zuma’s decision to take early retirement.
First, there is the problem of Malema himself. A youth movement with a charismatic leader can be palatable to electors for a few years; but a youth movement of the middle-aged, with an erratic commander for life, is quite another matter. Who among them has the capacity to contradict the commander, let alone supplant him?
Second, the EFF is divided about its approach to coalition politics. Is the EFF a political party in its own right, one that might seek allies anywhere? Or is it merely an ANC faction, waiting for an opportunity to return to the mother body on its own favourable terms?
Deputy leader Floyd Shivambu stated last week that the EFF’s days as “spectators” are over: the party will participate in government in 2019. This looks like wishful thinking. EFF leaders are running out of funders, their elected officials are fed up paying tithes to the party, and there are deep divisions about the relative merits of coalition partners.
Third, commentators have struggled to explain why the party has dumped its recently acquired anti-corruption credentials to launch pitiful rescue missions for board members of corrupt parastatals, suspended revenue service commissioners, and other Zuma-era gravy-trainers. Worse still, the party has attacked prominent Indians in government, many of whom once risked their lives against real rather than pop guns.
Citizens will inevitably conclude that such shameful attacks must have been precipitated in part by financial inducements. More important, however, these actions reflect the EFF’s failure to break out of an electoral prison.
In the 2014 national elections, the EFF attracted more than 10% support in Limpopo, Gauteng and the North West. In contrast, the party secured less than 3% in the Cape provinces. In KwaZulu-Natal, it recorded 1.85%.
Perhaps the EFF fears that it still remains a narrowly regional and ethnic party? Many of the EFF’s flip-flops on corruption, and its shameful ethnic slurs, seem to flow from a cynical effort to capture voters and funders from Zuma’s key provinces, and especially from KwaZulu-Natal. Such a strategy, if it exists, would be both cynical and misconceived.
Finally, the EFF is running aground because of a lack of credible policies and skills. It is fine to promise state control of everything, but electors begin to rethink the whole matter once you come close to reaching office. It would help if more EFF leaders had run something — even a student organisation — that had not collapsed.
Land reform may be the key policy issue in the election. Despite a good deal of media hyperventilation this week, notably when Caudillo Cyril Ramaphosa apparently parked his tanks on the lawns of the state broadcaster, the ANC has not changed its position on the process to initiate amendments to Section 25 of the Constitution.
The EFF is, meanwhile, stuck with the policy of “expropriation of everything”. In its world, citizens will apparently queue up, perhaps at expanded home affairs offices, to renew their land-use licences. This scenario probably can’t be sold to many electors, yet the EFF lacks the time, and the agility, to change it for something more credible in advance of the 2019 elections.
• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town