Mahlatse Mahlase

Democracy within could be EFF's biggest test

2018-06-01 12:58
EFF leader Julius Malema. (Image via Twitter)

EFF leader Julius Malema. (Image via Twitter)

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South Africa's smaller opposition parties have repeatedly failed the test of internal democracy. Many of them are still led by founding leaders with no visible succession plan or indications that the leaders are ready to step down. 

Leading the oldest among them, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, has been at the helm since its inception in 1975. Although Buthelezi recently announced his plans to retire, his stay at the helm even when the party was shedding votes was inexplicable.

In 1994, the party got 10.5% of the vote, making it the third biggest party, but in the last national election it scored a meagre 2.40%.

In 2011, IFP members who wanted the party's then national chairperson Zanele kaMagwaza-Msibi to succeed Buthelezi left the party to form the National Freedom Party (NFP). While this was good to expand the electoral menu for voters, it signalled the regression of the IFP.

Then there is the United Democratic Movement (UDM) led by Bantu Holomisa. Founded shortly after his expulsion from the ANC in 1997, the UDM was a very diverse party that threatened to challenge the ANC in the long run. But Holomisa's tight grip on the party was such that it bled voters from its high of 3.4% in the 1999 elections to the current 1%. Yet, Holomisa remains the leader.

The African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), led by its founder Kenneth Meshoe, has not shown much growth notwithstanding the fact that South Africa is statistically a Christian country. Many could potentially identify with his conservative brand of Christianity but Meshoe has not demonstrated capacity to grow the party. At its inception in 2009 the party got 0.8% of the vote and is now sitting at 0.57%. There's no successor in sight, raising questions about the democratic space within the party.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is the youngest of the lot, and is currently undergoing its biggest test yet with regional and provincial structures holding elective conferences leading to the second national assembly in 2019.

They are very aware of what happened to another ANC offshoot, COPE, that obliterated its own support base with a never-ending battle for leadership. The party's beginning was very much like that of the EFF, as just months after its formation it won 7.4% of the vote in 2009. But the infighting obliterated its support base, leading to the party's dramatic decline in support to 0.67% five years later. 

While EFF party leaders refuse to publicly acknowledge the internal divisions ahead of the assembly, members on the ground speak repeatedly of "continuity versus anti-continuity factions".

They pit party leader Julius Malema against his deputy Floyd Shivambu but senior leaders have repeatedly downplayed the possibility of the two contesting each other.

The fight for positions ahead of general elections is always expected to get nasty, as leaders want to be rewarded with a seat in the legislature or National Assembly and the EFF is not immune to that.

Contests for power and position within any party are always welcomed, however the recent Tshwane regional conference points to what could be a crisis within, after members pointed guns and threw stones at each other.  

The party's response to the violence was that it will not engage with the people who threw stones and pointed guns because there is no "evidence that they are bona fide members".

But the members were dressed in the party's famous red berets and t-shirts.

Last month an audio clip of a phone conversation purportedly by Gauteng leader Mandisa Mashego discussing how she will "deal" with a branch leader in the same way she dealt with another leader who was eventually expelled surfaced on social media.

Disgruntled members told News24 that the road to the provincial conference was not fair with some of them left out and others claiming that their cries are being ignored by Braamfontein.

Commander-in-chief Malema told editors at a breakfast that the EFF was in its formative stage and did not welcome any attempts to damage its image. He said the party would deal "decisively" with those who chose to march to the headquarters instead of using internal processes.

"Anyone who marches to the office of the EFF, you have defied yourself outside the organisation. There is no marching here, because we listen to everything, we attend to everything," he said.

But marches are a democratic form of protest, often by frustrated members who want the leadership to hear them out.

Over the years there have also been other worrying signs around how the EFF deals with dissent. The KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape provincial structures were dissolved because "they performed badly in the municipal elections" but at the time some of its leaders said they were being removed because they challenged the national leadership.

"Members of the EFF in KZN, just allow us to lead you. We know what we are doing," Malema was quoted saying at the time.

Recently, the Mpumalanga secretary was expelled for "submitting a shoddy organisational report" while a number of EFF Members of Parliament were also replaced.

It is understandable that, with the Democratic Alliance suffering internal implosion, and the ANC engaged in perpetual infighting, the EFF leadership wants to uphold a public image of a party united, cohesive and running smoothly.

They are right to be careful, because the ANC has been torn apart by internal squabbles and it has cost them at the polls.

Malema often dismisses the "dictator" style leadership that he has been accused of since his days in the Youth League as firmness, but the road to the EFF's 2019 assembly will be the big test to see if the party can pass the rigor of a true, internal democratic process.

- Mahlase is politics editor of News24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    acdp  |  eff  |  ifp  |  floyd shivambu  |  julius malema
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