South Africa: Julius Malema, a forever ten percent man?

Julius Malema.
Julius Malema

Predictions may vary for what the outcome of the May elections will be but there are one or two trends on which some pollsters agree. From the polls so far, it appears that the ANC will lose some support from its 2014 showing, the DA is likely to stay roughly where it is, while the EFF appears likely to make some gains. The main EFF-related issue is whether or not the EFF will get above or below 10% of the vote and what that means for SA politics.

There can be no debate over the impact that the EFF, and its leader Julius Malema, have had on our politics since their inception. Before the 2014 elections Parliament was a quiet-ish place. Much of our politics had the centre of gravity in Gauteng, where the President sits and the ANC’s national executive committee usually meet.

In 2014, however, shock therapy was administered to the SA Parliament when the red berets introduced the politics of spectacle and the State of the Nation Address went from Gareth Cliff’s drinking game to a Twitter sensation because of the tension between Malema and then President Jacob Zuma, and the frequent fist fights that followed the soon-to-be regular burst of the anti-riot police into the chamber.

At the same time, ugliness has reared its head – comments about “cutting the throat of whiteness” or insults hurled at Indian people have become a normalised part of our political lexicon. In turn, Malema is often called a “fascist” by his opponents.

The EFF appear to ignore some of the prescripts of democracy: all of their members wear the same red overalls, their debates often are just shouting matches of continuously hurled insults; the rule of law does not seem to apply to Malema; the EFF’s election posters feature only their Commander-in-Chief (which in itself is a war statement of sorts), and the similarities with some parties that turned out to be fascist are ever present.

It is no secret that Malema is often about anger and, sometimes, vengeance.

The Institute for Race Relations suggests the EFF could win up to 12% but prediction are not outcomes and it is possible that the EFF could slip below 10%, as some voters may return to the ANC, or decide not to vote at all.

From a structural point of view, were the EFF to grow while the DA just retained its level of support, it could simply be a reflection of what has happened in the economy. The middle-class has stopped growing, while the number of people without jobs and without hope in the current system has grown. In other words, the potential pool of voters for the EFF may have grown. Alternatively, if the potential pool of disaffected young voters has grown, but the EFF does not grow significantly, that could be an indication that the party has actually regressed.

Should Malema achieve 10% or above of the vote, he will trumpet that his party has grown the most, and that it is a real winner of the 2019 elections. He will use that to suggest that he has political momentum, which would give him the impression of growing political power. With a slightly larger caucus of MPs in Parliament (40 or so vs the current 25), the party could make more noise, ask more questions, and generally continue the strategy of using Parliament to gain public attention.

More important, the growth of that nature would be an indication that the EFF has been able to do something it has appeared unable to do – grow and sustain structures across the country, which is vital for its longer-term strategy and something that gives a current advantage to both the ANC and the DA. For the EFF to create national structures that are able to function is vitally important – there lies the future of the party, and any future momentum, going forward.

The growth of this nature could also put law enforcement agencies under intense pressure. As News 24’s Adriaan Basson explains this week it seems difficult to explain how and why the Hawks and the NPA have not formally charged Malema with wrongdoing. There is a long list of cases – his firing of live ammunition in 2018, the alleged corruption stemming from Limpopo in 2010, the various racially-charged comments he has been making for years, and his involvement in the VBS scandal.

There appears to be no action. Were he to grow his political power base, any attempt to press ahead with those cases post the election could appear politically motivated. In other words, it could look like the ANC is trying to achieve legally what it could not achieve politically – certainly Malema would claim that. It also should not be forgotten that if Malema is innocent of these claims against him, it would be to his benefit to get these processes over with as quickly as possible, so as to remove the question marks over his past actions.

However, growth to 10% or more could lead to more problems. As political movements grow in size, their complexity grows too. Generally speaking, the range of constituencies that have to be managed increases in breadth. When the DA was smaller, it was easier to manage it; now that it has grown into a party leading Western Cape and major metros, it seems to be harder to lead. The same might well apply to the EFF should they grow in size. Already there are indications of problems in managing its current parliamentary caucus of just 25 members (at least 15 of those have either resigned or have been expelled). While there is very little public evidence currently of any kind of problems within the EFF, the potential for divisions will only grow as it grows.

But what would happen if the EFF does not reach double digits?

First, it could appear to be stuttering, that it has not been able to make much progress at all. Certainly, its opponents would claim it has had all the free publicity in the world, while still unable to actually achieve proper traction. Key to this is political momentum, and if the EFF fails to grow it, they could soon be seen as yesterday’s news.

Second, it’s a matter of confidence. It’s one thing to be a member of Parliament for a party that is on the move, it’s another to find that, in fact, you have not moved forward at all, and that an overwhelming majority of the country has voted against you. This could have implications for the party’s MPs perform in Parliament, and whether they are able to continue to make an impact. This could also, perhaps, have implications for unity as well. If people are not convinced of their futures, they may be more vulnerable to other approaches.

And third, a perceived halt in the EFF’s momentum could create space for the law enforcement agencies to do their work. In other words, the political pressure on them not to prosecute could be removed.

It must be remembered that a lack of progress in these elections could also indicate that the EFF has been unsuccessful in creating structures on the ground. If that is the case, that could be the most important aspect of this entire election; if it cannot create sustainable structures that deliver votes, it may be impossible for it to continue in the long term.

It has been suggested before that this is an important election for all three of the major parties; if the ANC loses significant support, those opposed to President Cyril Ramaphosa could be emboldened, whereas if the DA goes backwards the knives could be out for Mmusi Maimane. The same must be true for the EFF.

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