Max du Preez

How much has the EFF changed the nature of SA politics?

2015-07-28 08:31

Max du Preez

It seldom happens that a political party is feared, hated and admired in equal measure, as is the case with the Economic Freedom Fighters.

The party scares some citizens with its extremist rhetoric on land ownership and nationalisation and its explicit insults and threats to the white minority.

It is hated, mostly by the ANC and the South African Communist Party, because of its frank talk on uncomfortable matters, its insults to senior leaders and its in-your-face attitude towards the powerful.

It is admired, not only by people who are angry at the status quo, but by citizens across the spectrum for its refusal to be intimidated by the government and the ruling party bullies.

Reckless populism

The party celebrated its second birthday at the weekend. Contrary to some predictions two years ago, it seems as if the party could be around for considerable time – but, one suspects, only if Julius Malema is the leader.

One reads almost daily that the EFF has fundamentally changed the nature of South African politics all on its own and that it is overshadowing the DA completely.

That is, in my view, overstated. It is more a reaction to the EFF’s reckless populism and clever use of symbolism and theatrics. Superficial journalists thrive on the EFF’s drama, give its antics a lot of prominence, read or listen to their own reporting and then conclude that the EFF was a party of great substance.

Objectively viewed, the EFF cannot boast about many concrete achievements over the last two years. It hasn’t made much of a dent in President Jacob Zuma’s near-invincibility inside the ANC. The ANC is today as arrogant and corrupt as it was two years ago and are as little concerned about the plight of the poor and the ordinary people on the ground as before. Police brutality hasn’t diminished. Nothing has been nationalised and no land has been taken away. Our society is as unequal as it was when the EFF was formed.

In my analysis the biggest impact the EFF has made was actually unintended and surprising coming from a party with strong anti-democratic, even fascist tendencies: it opened up our national public discourse and in the process even broadened our democracy. Ironically, the DA has especially benefited from this.

Disrespect towards politicians

When Andries Treurnicht and his Conservative Party broke away from the ruling National Party in 1982, they seriously undermined the old Afrikaner culture of respect for national leaders. PW Botha, then still prime minister, and his colleagues in the Cabinet and the party were publicly insulted and humiliated. That broke an old taboo. The NP could no longer present itself as the exclusive voice of Afrikaners. The nature of debates in the white Parliament, where the only opposition then came from the 267 members of the Progressive Federal Party, changed.

There was a similar culture of respect and reverence towards leaders in the black community during the era of Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. Julius Malema and Co broke this taboo quickly and slaughtered a whole herd of holy cows.

Zuma is a thief; Cyril Ramaphosa is a mass murder and a capitalist tool; Blade Nzimande is a drunken dwarf, are the kinds of insults we hear from the EFF on a daily basis.

This disrespect and scepticism towards politicians has now become common in the national discourse and can be witnessed daily on talk radio, in newspapers and on social media. And it is a good thing.

After the EFF received six percent of the vote in the 2015 general election, the ANC was confronted brutally and without compromise in Parliament like never before in Parliament.

Radical rhetoric

It was a shock-and-awe approach that wasn’t taken much further by the EFF’s inexperienced (and mostly mediocre) 25 members in Parliament. The greatest real impact of this new atmosphere in parliament was that the DA with its 89 members was spurned into action and could behave more aggressively and pro-actively. The DA remains a much bigger threat to the ANC at the polling booth than the EFF.

A side-effect of the EFF’s radical rhetoric was an increase in racial polarisation and intolerance.

At the same time, though, the really angry and marginalised among us, especially the younger generation, now feel that they do have a voice inside the highest policy-making body in our democracy. That contributes to stability, because otherwise these people would have had to operate outside the system.

As American president Lyndon B Johnson said, it’s better to have them inside the tent pissing out that outside the tent pissing in.

- Follow Max on Twitter.

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