Let's Think

EFF and the ground shift in SA political environment

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 Political leaders and parties are facing major challenges to adapt to the ground shift taking place in South Africa’s political environment – and some are already doing better than others.

Indicative of the extent to which the shift has already taken place and impacted on political parties and leaders, is the following statement by a political columnist about the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF): “I’d argue that they now function as this country’s official opposition, the de facto counterweight to the bad guys fleecing the joint one firepool at a time.”

At first glance this judgement by Richard Poplak in the Daily Maverick about a party with only 25 seats in the National Assembly seems very bold. However, what happened in the Constitutional Court (CC) last week regarding the Nkandla affair, on an initiative launched by EFF, gives some substance to his view.

There is no doubt that the EFF has learned to play the political game with remarkable sophistication for such a young party born under tremulous circumstances, less than a year before taking part in the 2014 general election.

How they learned their lessons was also on display at last week’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) in parliament. They delivered their message with some disruption, but avoided the violent confrontation of the previous year.

On the broader political front, looking at the upcoming municipal elections, the EFF is the only one of the three biggest parties to have their ducks in a row at this stage. They are concentrating on their own message and does not allow sideshows to distract them. In fact, to a large extent they have succeeded since 2014 to dictate the broader political agenda while avoiding being sucked into petty sideshows.

Race debate

This is best illustrated by how the party kept its hands clean during the recent debate on race, while zooming in on problematic issues of, especially, the ANC.

Most recently they succeeded in just about hijacking the Gupta affair, triggered within the ANC alliance by the Congress of SA Trade Unions (COSATU) and the SA Communist Party (SACP).

It very quickly became an EFF campaign, culminating in its parliamentarians leaving the chamber during the SONA, chanting the slogan “Zupta must fall” – a reference to Zuma’s close links to the influential Gupta family. The Gupta family has become a high-profile symbol of state capture under the Zuma administration.

Although a racial undertone might be present in the EFF’s “Guptas must fall” campaign, the EFF has avoided being sucked into the racism furore that has dominated public discourse in the country after it exploded on the social media.

While it was originally the EFF’s strong racial focus that forced the ANC to constantly play the ‘race card’, during the latest furore, it showed a surprisingly nuanced approach by allowing its national chairperson, advocate Dali Mpofu, to represent celebrity Gareth Cliff against a charge of racism.

Suddenly a high-profile EFF functionary was the defender of the constitutionally enshrined right of freedom of speech.

And, last week in the CC, the EFF came out of proceedings as the major champion – or most successful one anyway – of the Constitution and its mandated Chapter 9 institution, to ensure accountability of government and its functionaries. It is clear that at this point, even for vulnerable groups among voters, like whites, the distrust in the Zuma-led administration outweighs fears of a populist EFF.

Out-strategising DA and ANC

Helped by the fact that at this stage, unlike the ANC and DA, the EFF does not carry the baggage that comes with being in government at any level, it could out-strategise the two mainline parties.

It already has a well-integrated and defined campaign strategy in place and is in the process of deploying it. Having declared that it will field candidates in every municipal ward in the country, it will also afford them the opportunity to broaden and strengthen its organisation base with an eye on the next national elections in 2019.

The DA and ANC meantime got sidetracked by the racism debate triggered by the Penny Sparrow social media war, eating up much political energy.

The ANC has the additional serious threats posed by the fracturing of its alliance with COSATU and the SACP and threatening social unrest in the face of wordwide economic turmoil. It did not help that Mr Zuma set himself up as a handy bogeyman with the controversy around the ministry of finance at the end of last year.

Election

It is way too early and the general political scene too riddled with uncertainties to make accurate predictions on the upcoming municipal elections somewhere between the end of May and August.

But, as we read the lay of the land and the inability of the mainline parties to come up with well-integrated strategies at this stage, we think that in the broader scheme of things, the EFF is likely to be the only real winner – even if it does not win a single local ward on its own. They might, however, end-up in a coalition government or two.

by Steve Whiteman

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