With a jester at the helm, the EFF has the media attention but the party isn’t a real contender for power, writes Imraan Buccus.
There are only really three parties in this election. The NFP has self-destructed, the UDM, Minority Front and IFP are all of minor regional interest, Cope and Agang are a complete mess and the parties of the far left – Sopa, the PAC, Wasp, Azapo and the abortive United Front are all irrelevant.
The three real players in this election are the ANC, the DA and the EFF.
The ANC will take the vast majority of the votes. But there are three big questions in this election:
The first is how much the president’s ongoing debacle will cost the governing party.
The second is whether or not the DA will take Port Elizabeth and, as some pundits have suggested, perhaps Tshwane too.
The third big question is how well the EFF will do.
If many ANC supporters, appalled at the moral collapse of a once-great movement, stay at home and the DA and EFF are able to energise their supporters we could be in for an interesting election.
Some have suggested that a DA and EFF coalition could conceivably threaten the ANC in Joburg.
The EFF is a relatively small party in terms of the number of seats it holds in Parliament. Its actual support on the ground is relatively minor.
However, it is a huge party in terms of its media savvy and the amount of media attention it wins.
Again and again, the party has leveraged massive media attention from minor support.
But the EFF’s major media asset – its leader Julius Malema – is also its major liability. This is a contradiction that cannot be resolved easily.
Malema’s bombastic personality and quick wit mean that he can turn almost any situation to his short-term advantage when it comes to media attention.
While members of the public enjoy the spectacle of his larger-than-life character, they are not fools. We all remember that Malema was once Jacob Zuma’s most militant supporter.
We all remember that he was once a tenderpreneur and tax dodger. We all remember that he was once an enthusiastic Bob Mugabe supporter.
Of course Malema was wise enough to jump ship when the tide of popular opinion turned against Zuma, the tenderpreneurs and now Mugabe.
He’s a canny operator. But he’s also an opportunist of the worst kind and opportunism always has real political costs in the long term.
It is true that Donald Trump, a buffoon who delights in making outrageous statements, astounded the world by winning the Republican presidential nomination in the US.
The Republican Party created this mess for itself by pandering to right-wing populism in the form of the Tea Party.
But it has now created a situation in which it has a candidate who is simply not electable.
The EFF has put itself in a similar situation.
The party has encouraged buffoonery and cheap populism to garner media attention and create a stir.
This has worked very well indeed.
But every time Malema makes the kind of outrageous comment that pushes more reasonable voices out of the limelight he makes it harder for the public to consider him a serious contender for public office.
Playing the role of the Shakespearean fool is one thing. Assuming the gravitas of the king is another. Malema has typecast himself as the fool.
Like the Shakespearean fool, Malema very often says things that are true and which others don’t dare say.
This is not just entertaining. It is also sometimes valuable. When Malema depicts Zuma as a thief or points out that we have not yet resolved the land question, he is saying things that we know to be true. But the EFF’s solutions to our crisis often come straight from the unreconstructed Stalinism of the SACP. Eskom is a disaster. The SABC is a disaster. SA Airways is a disaster.
We all know this and yet the EFF continues to speak as if nationalisation is a panacea that will magically resolve all our problems and create work and wealth for all.
Malema often offers the right diagnosis.
He very seldom offers the right treatment for the disease, though.
If we were governed by the EFF and if the party actually tried to implement its programme we would, very quickly, end up where Zimbabwe is now.
Our economy would crash and there would be destitution on a far greater scale than we face.
It would take just a few months for the government to run out of money. Once grants and salaries could not be paid, there would be a real crisis.
The temptation to follow the Zimbabwean route and just print money would be overwhelming. But once a state goes down that road, hyper-inflation and further destitution are inevitable.
At that point austerity has to be confronted and once austerity is opposed there would be massive social conflict.
It wouldn’t take long before our cities would look like much like Harare with desperate people confronting the police on the streets.
The EFF has substituted crude populism, often presented via Trump-like buffoonery, for the serious and painstaking work of building a credible left alternative from the ground up.
Of course Malema’s gift for spin and spectacle have won the party a real base while the narrow dogmatism of parties like Sopa and Wasp have consigned them to permanent irrelevance.
Populism is a far better electoral prospect than narrow dogmatism. But it needs to be accompanied by the sort of serious political work that can articulate popular aspirations to viable political strategies for change.
Until the EFF is able to achieve this it will remain in the role of the Shakespearean fool, always poking fun at the king but with no chance of ever becoming the king.