OPINION | 2019 will likely be the EFF’s election

EFF leader Julius Malema sings with members of his leadership after delivering the party's 2019 Election Manifesto at the Giant Stadium in Pretoria on February 2 2019. Picture: AFP/PHILL MAGAKOE
EFF leader Julius Malema sings with members of his leadership after delivering the party's 2019 Election Manifesto at the Giant Stadium in Pretoria on February 2 2019. Picture: AFP/PHILL MAGAKOE

On the available evidence, there would seem to be one thing you can be certain enough about, ahead of May 8 and the 2019 election: the ANC will, once again, win a national majority. 

It will probably be a messy affair, and the lower the ANC’s final percentage (likely to fall below the 62% it managed in 2014) the higher the chances it will fail to secure 50% in Gauteng. It got 53% on the provincial ballot in that province in 2014 and any national decline will inevitably be mirrored in SA’s most populous urban centre.

All of this is subject to the usual provisos of course: a scenario based on available evidence.

Evidence also suggests the DA’s vote is fairly stable. It seems to fluctuate within a rough band between 20% and 24%. A good election and it will end near or above the top end of the band; a bad one, nearer the bottom. But, if the DA is able to grow, it will largely be by attrition. That is, incrementally growing its share of the electoral pool, election after election, by consolidating the opposition and through new registrations — a process somewhat helped over time by the ANC’s aging voter-base.

That is why the DA’s greatest threat in this election is apathy. The party seems fairly incapable actually eating directly into ANC support in any meaningful way (it gets odds and ends). In general terms, to grow it must grow its share of all registered voters and get them to vote on election day. Simultaneously, to hope the ANC’s voting base is too marginalised to make the requisite effort.

Why the EFF is different to the DA

But the EFF is different. It looks set to grow and, off a small base, by a not insignificant amount. It is difficult to tell exactly by how much — the EFF base is notoriously difficult to accurately track — but, on a good day, it could get as high as 12%. On a great day, maybe even a little higher. Even if it had a bad election, and ends up near or below 10%, it is likely to grow at a greater rate than anyone else.

Chances are, this will be the EFF’s election.

The thing is this: whatever growth the EFF achieves, it will come straight from the ANC. The two parties are currently locked in a mighty tussle for about 6% of black ANC voters — and where the majority of those voters end up, will go some significant way towards defining the election outcome for each respective party.

The EFF’s argument is that the ANC has failed the people not because it is incompetent or corrupt (although, of course, this has exacerbated its decline) but because it has abandoned its historic mission and purpose: to deliver a socialist state

What the EFF has done, and which no other party has managed after 1994, is to threaten to take away directly from the ANC a chunk of its support base in two successive national elections. It is true, other opposition parties (COPE for example, in 2009) have done that in one election, but never two (the majority of COPE supporters trickled back to the ANC in subsequent elections). That is the story for most parties born of the ANC: they make some small initial impact but then, inevitably, are slowly swallowed back up by the ANC behemoth over time.

If the EFF does manage, say, 12% and to roughly double its support (it secured 6.3% in 2014), it will have achieved something no other party has managed. Like or loathe the EFF, that will be remarkable. There are a number of points to make, should that happen.

The first goes to how the EFF has managed this, given the competition in the opposition ranks. 

How best to out-ANC the ANC

To this end, it is helpful to imagine the ANC in the middle of a spectrum. On the one side of it is the EFF, constantly pulling it towards fundamentalism; on the other, the DA, trying to pull it towards constitutionalism. The ANC itself is fairly divided and constantly torn between the two options. But its stronger inclination, given its nature, is towards the EFF.

An important disclaimer at this point: this whole spectrum is indicative of ANC ideology. On it, the DA does not represent some fundamentally different ideological worldview. It has long since surrendered itself to the ANC’s hegemonic belief system. It fights for all the things the ANC fights for, only it promises more constitutional responsibility and better delivery. There are a few small differences in policy, but nothing defining.

The EFF, too, is of the ANC. Only it wants ANC policy taken to its extreme. It promises to deliver the outcomes better too, but the outcomes are so profoundly damaging to any reasonable understanding of prosperity or economic growth, they make their delivery a moot point.

The general pitch of parties such as the DA, then, is to argue that the ANC has failed to manage the state and, mired in corruption and maladministration, the party is anathema to the idea of good governance. The EFF also plays this card but, in contrast, its antidote is not to double-down on constitutionalism, but rather to intensify and make explicit the latent radical socialist ideas inherent to the ANC’s national democratic revolution — the very things that have so heavily contributed to SA’s decay.

The EFF’s argument is that the ANC has failed the people not because it is incompetent or corrupt (although, of course, this has exacerbated its decline) but because it has abandoned its historic mission and purpose: to deliver a socialist state. Rather, it serves and is held hostage by such things as “white monopoly capital”. It therefore posits itself as the ANC’s revolutionary conscience. And through issues such as land, and the ANC’s own past rhetoric, it is able to apply pressure onto the ANC to be “true to itself”.

It is aided by the fact that the ANC, primarily under the leadership of Jacob Zuma, transformed in turn. Populism and demagoguery took root inside the party, especially with regards to the economy, and today the ANC boasts several personalities as a result. There is the face of ostensible reasonableness, in President Cyril Ramaphosa, but the base, instinctive nature of Jacob Zuma. And you can be sure the EFF appeals to the latter, not the former. In this way too, it can play one against the other, to great effect.

Essentially, in their own ways, both the DA and the EFF are trying to out-ANC the ANC. Only the EFF is having much more success.

Certainty in an age of doubt and confusion

There are a number of reasons for this. Two are worth mentioning here. The first is the personality of Julius Malema. In any age of uncertainty, an iron-fisted and charismatic autocrat will enjoy popularity, as a counterpoint to indecisiveness. He cuts a stark contrast to the confused and ambiguous figures of Ramaphosa and Mmusi Maimane (both being cut from the same woolly cloth). 

The second is that the EFF is not constrained by rationality in the way the DA is. It can promise the world without consequence. And it does. 

The test of all this will be if the ANC drops below 50% in Gauteng — a real possibility. For the first time, with Zuma removed from the battlefield, the EFF will have the option of working the alienated parent that birthed it

These differences are critical to understanding the EFF’s ability to win support directly from the ANC. But it is the significance of its ability to do that should most disturb.

No one quite knows what to make of the ANC at the moment. It is the great unknowns. Ramaphosa’s promises are limited by the need to win the election, hedged in and compromised. And so, while many have chosen blind faith as a safe refuge, quite what he will ultimately do remains to be seen. That is, if he ever does anything. Occam’s Razor would suggest the Ramaphosa you see today, is the Ramaphosa that will always be: constantly trapped between a rock and hard place and fully in favour of both rocks and hard places.

The EFF, however, thrives off this kind of thing. It is exactly this sort of ambiguity from which it draws its electoral strength. And it is exactly this ambiguity that renders the DA weak and ineffectual, when it comes to making direct inroads into the ANC’s electoral base.

The test of all this will be if the ANC drops below 50% in Gauteng — a real possibility. For the first time, with Zuma removed from the battlefield, the EFF will have the option of working the alienated parent that birthed it. 

It’s a conundrum the EFF is going to be hard pushed to solve. It will want what it always wants — a premier it can influence and take credit for (in the way it can Herman Mashaba) and enough independence to ensure it does not get sucked back into the ANC over time, or its identity diluted as a minor opposition party. Hard asks those, because if the ANC does fall below 50% it is likely the EFF alone will be able to offer a majority government. 

And so, as remarkable as this election will likely be for the EFF, its biggest challenge lies ahead. What, ultimately, is the point of the EFF? If it is to re-revolutionise the ANC, that is a job best done externally from it. Likewise, if it wants to actually one day win a national majority, it will not want to integrate with the ANC monolith, even in the government. But Gauteng is probably going to demand some hard decisions on that front regardless.

The EFF is the ANC’s kryptonite

The stronger the EFF grows, the weaker the ANC’s chances of ever reining it back in. You can be sure there were many in the ANC who thought, back when the EFF was first formed, “Malema will come back home soon enough”. It hasn’t happened. And as the EFF has become stronger and stronger, at the ANC’s expense, the incentive to return has declined. But 12% for the EFF will be an electoral triumph. And whatever Malema’s private plans, that sort of growth takes on a life of its own.

The genie is now well and truly out of the bottle. The ANC is the thing that is feeding it, directly and indirectly. And, as it grows, it will likely become more, not less, radical. Over the next 10 years, if the EFF is able to steadily increases the strength of its ideological tractor beam on the ANC, it will eventually rip a huge portion of the ANC from it. That might be a good or a bad thing but, either way, as things stand, the EFF is the ANC’s only electoral kryptonite and it is working wonders.

• Van Onselen is the head of politics and governance at the SA Institute of Race Relations.

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