Red berets, leave your overalls and get serious

2014-05-21 06:00

Earlier this year, the Democratic Alliance was feeling under pressure.

Although it was the country’s second-biggest party and was guaranteed to be returned as such in the elections, an upstart was stealing the headlines.

The Economic Freedom Fighters were shouting loudly, making brash statements and pulling off headline-grabbing stunts.

Public discourse was pitching the South African political battle between the ANC and the EFF. This was not a good position for the DA, which was positioning itself as the alternative government. Something radical had to be done.

This frustration was given as a reason that the idea of a DA jobs march on the ANC headquarters found fertile ground in the party.

DA higher-ups knew it was likely to generate heat but, at the same time, they needed to take the fight to the ANC, knock the EFF off the number two perch and remind the public that they were the real pretenders to the throne.

This is just one example of the impact that South Africa’s youngest party had on this year’s elections and how, with little resources, it captured 6% of the electorate to its cause.

The EFF may not have fully set the agenda. It could never have done so given the ANC and DA’s larger budgets for research, advertising and responding to voter needs. But the party certainly did have the larger guys, particularly the ANC, dancing to its tune.

There is no better illustration of this than the ANC’s decision to distribute 50 000 red berets to members on the eve of its manifesto launch in January.

This gimmick, designed to dilute the EFF’s distinctive red colours, was backed by the SA Communist Party’s angry assertion that the new party had stolen its communist colours.

The ANC’s following of the EFF around the dance floor did not end there. When Malema shared the manifesto-day headlines with Zuma by building a house for an Nkandla family, the ANC decided to hit back by performing a similar act of charity in the former ANC Youth League leader’s Seshego neighbourhood.

When the EFF hosted its manifesto rally in Tembisa, the ANC threw a free music concert with top artists a few kilometres away. And so it went on.

The tit-for-tat was embarrassingly obvious, almost like a father imitating his toddler.

ANC leaders were to profile the EFF further by denigrating the party in their speeches. The SABC’s censoring of the EFF garnered more airtime, newspaper headlines and social media noise.

It was a classic guerrilla campaign, aided by the fact that the party could make outrageous promises in the full knowledge that voters would not have to hold it accountable after the elections.

But in case the EFF – or any other party – believes it can run a similar campaign in the future, it is seriously deluded. This was a once-off affair, which was the product of a historical moment.

The EFF captured a political moment. Elections 2014 came at a time when South Africans were looking for something more than the staple that was being served up by parties already on the scene.

This was evident at the EFF pre-election rally in Pretoria. The crowd that packed the 29 000-seater stadium defied the stereotype of the EFF’s appeal to the downtrodden working classes and unemployed youth.

Those who fitted into this category were there in their numbers, but the crowd was more diverse than that.

It included professionals with Model C twangs, the types that would probably be found at Capello’s and News Cafe having after-work drinks.

There were former Azapo and PAC activists, whose parties were marching towards the cemetery. Also present were grassroots community activists and NGO types.

There were many there who were derisively referred to as the ultra-left. These were all souls who had found a political formation they could call their political home.

More than 1.1 million of them made their crosses next to Malema’s face, even in areas where he and his comrades had not even campaigned.

After the noise, the stunts and outlandish promises of the campaign trail, the EFF’s moment of truth will arrive today. This is the day the 25 “Fighters” will be sworn in as members of Parliament. Others will follow suit in the provincial legislatures.

From then onwards, they will not only be called honourable members but will also have to call Thulas Nxesi, Pieter Mulder and Dianne Kohler Barnard honourable.

Cynics have warned that the EFF’s performance could be a blip on the historical line. They have pointed to other parties that arrived on the scene with great oomph only to fizzle out once the excitement of being a start-up had worn off.

Counted among these are the United Democratic Movement, the Independent Democrats and the Congress of the People. Most of these fell victim to the personality cult and the inability to grow beyond the appeal of the leader.

The EFF has every chance of heading in that direction. If it is to sustain itself, it will have to evolve into more than Malema’s party. He may be its strongest drawcard, but it will run out of steam if it does not extend its identity beyond the charisma of its leader.

The party will have to move beyond the shock tactics of extraparliamentary politics.

This may not be appealing to a party whose success was built on being wildly different from the rest of the crowd.

But, once the members are inside the tent, they will have to learn to play by the rules. The very public that enjoyed their spectacles during the campaign will demand a level of seriousness when they become members of Parliament.

On policy, the EFF will have to deepen its thinking. EFF MPs will be dealing with a lot more than the party’s narrow focus of nationalising everything. There will be detailed legislative matters, oversight issues and tons of boring documents to pore through.

The new terrain will be less exciting than the revolutionary sloganeering of the streets. If the EFF’s mostly young MPs – who are new to this game – fail to adjust to this mundane terrain, they can kiss goodbye any chance of long-term growth.

If they see their role as the noisy spoilers of Parliament, the public will turn against them.

So if the EFF members of Parliament really want to make an impact, they must leave their overalls at home, put on the stuffy suits and get serious.

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