3 Challenges Facing the EFF in 2015

2015-01-12 18:15

Julius Malema (CityPress)

South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) occupy a unique space. They are admired, reviled, or both. Unpredictable reactions to them is reflective of the party’s capricious existence. For example, while preaching to be radically pro-poor and anti-capitalist, many of its high-ranking members are personal very wealthy and have industrial interests that could make libertarians blush. Equally, its contempt for parliamentary protocol dissipates when it is in trouble.

In order to escape the damp squib fate that has befallen so many third parties in South Africa, it must overcome the challenges of leadership, legitimacy and legacy.

The challenge of leadership exists on two fronts: one is around Julius Malema, personally, and the other is around diversification, generally. In both cases, the party’s commitment to competition and internal democracy, and ultimately its survival, is at stake.

The EFF is indisputably recognised as a personal project of Julius Malema. After being expelled by the ANC, Malema required a political home in order to survive. The EFF, thus, sprung up as the vehicle to ensure Malema’s continued rise – and those who support him. The EFF’s brilliance, however, is its ability to cloak its self-serving interest in the popular language of revolution – an ability the ANC now lacks.

As the politics of the EFF normalises, so too will the internal disputes around leadership and direction. It has, for example, already faced its first splinter (the New EFF) and had to endure stringent criticism from inside and out.

The response has been varied. Critics have either been wholly ignored (illustrative of a supreme confidence) or histrionically denounced (demonstrative of the exact opposite). Both are concerning: the EFF cannot allow its leadership to become immune to critical voices, nor can it demonise them. It must earnestly listen and be willing to ‘kill its darling’, namely Malema himself, in the name of the cause.

The EFF also faces a challenge for its legitimate claim to represent the broad left. As the tripartite alliance disintegrates, accelerated by the ANC’s overall, the EFF has an opportunity to exploit the economic disempowerment of the majority of South Africans by turning it into a significant political force. But it is something it cannot do alone.

However, as the manoeuvrings of those on the left demonstrate, there is scant agreement on ideology or tactics. This is fuelled by personal agendas among the trade union barons and left’s political denizens – each wishing to manipulate the ANC’s desire to maintain power, and its reliance on the left, in order to advance their own careers.

The EFF faces the additional challenge of having isolated and alienated many of its prospective allies. When its high command was embedded within the ANC, they were used as a proxy to attack the left. Prospective allies, then, have long been alienated and are already sceptical of the EFF’s true intentions. Thus, its capacity to build a broad consensus among the left’s and engender a greater realignment, to acquire power, is yet to be seen.

Moreover, a significant question is what the EFF’s legacy will actually be. The party should rid itself of its eccentricities: it may be easier to threaten mayhem and disorder but the party needs to develop a serious agenda to show it can be trusted with power. Like the DA, local power can become the platform to showcase its wider project in action.

It is less a case of political schizophrenia as much as it is a struggle for identity: the EFF is caught between its revolutionary rhetoric and the reality of politics. In being pulled between the two, the EFF’s inconsistency is explained by its lapse of memory and judgment, as it tries to negotiate what image of itself it should project; all the while depending on which audience it is speaking to. This will only as the party grows older and the political environment changes around it.

While many disapprove of the EFF, its entry into South African politics should be heralded. It is an opportunity to deepen competition, deracialise participation, and fundamentally realign. That depends, however, on the EFF detaching itself from the meretricious gimmicks it has hitherto opted for. And change does not seem forthcoming.

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