Pieter du Toit

Reward or punishment for the EFF in 2019?

2018-11-09 06:00
EFF leader Julius Malema flanked by other party leaders. (Jabu Kumalo, Daily Sun)

EFF leader Julius Malema flanked by other party leaders. (Jabu Kumalo, Daily Sun)

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The EFF's strategy since its reincarnation from the ANCYL between 2008 and 2013 has always been to appeal to the base instincts of the marginalised and angry, writes Pieter du Toit.

The ANC Youth League's elective conference in Bloemfontein in April of 2008 was a muddy affair. Not only did it rain almost consistently for the duration of the gathering, but it signalled the start of the brand of dirty politics the ANCYL's then leadership was to become known for.

On Monday, April 7, 2008 a young Julius Malema was elected president of the ANCYL, defeating Saki Mofokeng by less than 200 votes. Malema was considered the protégé of outgoing youth league president Fikile Mbalula. He was one of his chief agitators against Thabo Mbeki, who was defeated at the ANC's Polokwane conference five months earlier in December 2007.

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Malema's election however came at a conference that was an absolute mess. Questions were asked about the legality of the voting process and amid rumours of vote-buying. But beyond process and procedure it is remembered for delegates throwing chairs in the plenary hall, pulling down their pants and slapping their exposed buttocks in the direction of the stage. Delegates also missed whole plenary sessions because of boot parties and drinking outside the hall.

Fast forward a decade into the future and Malema is no longer a rambunctious member of the ANC or the ANCYL, but the militant leader of an established opposition party with representation at all three levels of government. It boasts 25 seats in the National Assembly, 30 representatives in nine provincial legislatures and councillors in almost all of the country's municipalities. The party secured 1 166 million votes for a 6,35% share of the vote in the 2014 general election and followed it up two years later during the municipal election with popular support of 8,14% and 1 217 million votes.

But six months out from the country's sixth general election (it will be held in May 2019) the party that Malema built is creaking. The EFF's grip on its signature policy position – expropriation without compensation – has been loosened, it has been linked to the VBS Mutual Bank scandal and it is ramping up inflammatory racial rhetoric. The EFF's behaviour in Parliament this week – when it physically attacked other opposition MPs, combined with its usual racial insults – is its trademark. Under Malema and his wingman Floyd Shivambu's leadership the party is physically aggressive and rhetorically rash. It is unashamedly populist and resorts to grand promises and politically charged statements as a matter of course.

Getting a foothold among the electorate

The EFF's strategy since its reincarnation from the ANCYL between 2008 and 2013 has always been to appeal to the base instincts of the marginalised and angry. Malema and Shivambu, who was the youth league's spokesperson until he was expelled alongside his leader, quickly established themselves in opposition to the ANC's historic mission of non-racialism and carried this forward when they established the EFF shortly before the 2014 general election.

The party championed the Africanist cause and used the Marikana massacre with great success to get a foothold among the electorate. Malema proved adept at harnessing public anger around the death of 74 miners in the platinum belt in August 2013 on which to build the EFF's election campaign and was rewarded with 12,53% of the popular vote in the North West province in 2014, the biggest slice of provincial support for the EFF in the country.

Its subsequent entry into parliamentary politics was considered by many a fresh breeze after the ANC's successful and dogged defence of then president Jacob Zuma. Malema and his red-clad MPs cocked a snook at parliamentary tradition and protocol and proceeded to mercilessly taunt, insult and attack Zuma with chants of "pay back the money". It forced the Zuma-controlled legislature to physically attack them in the chamber of the National Assembly, which positioned them firmly on the side of the larger public. And, initially, it also added some sophistication to its anarchic brand of politics by using the Constitutional Court to force Parliament and government to implement the findings of the public protector's investigation into Nkandla.

Malema and the EFF's boorish tactics however gradually grew stale and unpalatable and in the 2016 municipal election it campaigned on the land question, propagating the expropriation without compensation of all land, but with a political focus on agricultural land. The party remained steady (given the smaller voter turnout compared to a general election) and garnered popular support of 8,14% whilst establishing itself as a key player in the opposition takeovers of the councils in Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Referendum on the EFF's policy of radicalism

Since the nominal departure of Zuma from the national political stage the EFF has reconvened around the issue of land and forced the ANC to recalibrate its approach to land reform. It will also be the party's main policy plank for 2019.

Mcebisi Ndletyana, associate professor of political studies at the University of Johannesburg, says the EFF's space to dominate issues ahead of the election is severely cramped. The EFF's biggest target since its establishment in 2013 has been to contrast itself with Zuma's ANC. Now that it is the ANC of President Cyril Ramaphosa it is finding the going much more difficult.

"The EFF's ideology centres around its ability to exploit fault-lines in society, by appealing to the marginalised and unemployed. They are a militant party that gets its traction from those that are bitter and feel that they have no stake in society, nothing to lose and that they want to attack the system," Ndletyana says.

Political analyst and author Ralph Mathekga agrees: "The EFF's strategy is to disrupt the system and to gain support among those who believe it doesn't work for them. The EFF is anti-establishment, anti-system, anti-everything. For them it is about the politics of disruption."

He believes the 2019 election will be a referendum on the EFF's policy of radicalism. "We will see whether or not the electorate will reward of punish them for their style. The party will then have to decide whether to ramp it up or tone it down. There will be a point where the law of diminishing returns will kick in, where more radicalism won't translate into more support."

Both Mathekga and Ndletyana say that fertile ground for the EFF's style of politics will remain as long as the high levels of unemployment and inequality remain.

Ndletyana says the ANC has managed to largely blunt the EFF.

"Zuma is gone and it's difficult for the EFF to convince people that the ANC today is the same as the ANC under him. Where the EFF was loud on the land question, that issue is now being led by the ANC, who is managing it politically.

"Also, it's difficult for the EFF to position itself as the champions of the poor when it's the ANC government responsible for social grants. And then you have the taint of the VBS issue, which has damaged the EFF's image as an anti-corruption movement."

According to Ndletyana the EFF has managed to get some levels of support among the black middle class. "Race remains a big issue and they have told the black middle class they understand frustrations around discrimination in the workplace, being overlooked for promotions, having hard-earned tax squandered by the ANC government and flashpoints like Cape Town's hostility towards blacks."

Mathekga expects the EFF to increase their popular support next year to around 10% of the electorate. He does not expect a major surge in support for the party and says the EFF's success would be in consolidating its position as the third biggest party in the country. "We probably won't see the EFF doubling its support to 16% or move to 20%. But moving to 10% and not slipping away like Cope after 2009 will be significant."

- Pieter du Toit is News24's assistant editor for in-depth news.

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