By Rafiq Raji, PhD
I was a little bit disappointed the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the ultra-leftist opposition party in South Africa, chose not to seek one of the top three positions in the key metropolitan municipalities (metros) of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay. The EFF could have, if it insisted, been availed a deputy mayorship or speakership in at least one of the three influential municipal councils. A speakership in each would have been ideal I thought. Instead, the EFF decided it would vote to wrest control of the metros from the African National Congress (ANC), thus enabling the Democratic Alliance (DA) – an opposition party no more, in Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay at least – to take over power, with it remaining in opposition.
The EFF is adamant it will not co-govern. With just about 8.3 percent of the vote in the recent local elections – the ANC and DA got 55.7 percent and 24.6 percent respectively – the likelihood that it would be able to govern on its own in the near future is a little remote. That is, if it does not change its currently hard stance, on land expropriation without compensation for instance. Short of that, it would probably remain perpetually in opposition. Even so, it had a chance this time, to co-govern either with the ANC or DA in quite a couple of hung local councils. Unfortunately, to my mind at least, the EFF balked at the prospect for ideological reasons.
Now not a few municipalities would potentially be laden with the type of disruptions that have become the norm in the federal legislature since the EFF joined it. Chaos beckons. Ironically, the ultimate beneficiary would be the very party the EFF loathes: the ANC. To think that this could have been its moment of triumph otherwise.
The media is awash with how the ANC needs to engage in thorough introspection on why it failed (or didn’t succeed as it did hitherto) in the 2016 local elections. I admonished as much, ahead of the elections (see my column of 2 August 2016 titled: “What should a chastened ANC do?”). However, I think there is a need for similar soul-searching by the EFF. The EFF needs to reappraise its strategy. It didn’t do as well as it could have, or was expected to, in the just concluded municipal polls. A relief to some actually: because now we know unless the EFF moderates its leftist rhetoric, it is not likely going to be able to rule South Africa through the ballot box.
Prove that you can govern
That opportunity came its way in the hung local councils where it wielded the deciding vote. If the EFF thought its differences with the DA were that significant, then a trade could have been made for it to secure at least one mayoral slot, an executive position, and maybe a speakership in another. That way, it could demonstrate its capability and capacity to govern. If the DA does well under the current arrangement, that is, deliver much needed services efficiently and effectively, the EFF would not really be able to take credit. And if realising this, it chooses to sabotage the efforts of the DA, that would simply alienate voters. As far as political strategy goes, however, the EFF’s move may not be entirely sub-optimal. The leadership likely thought it may begin to have the type of problems the ANC is currently grappling with: corruption mostly. And its current structure is still too weak to withstand such disruptions. Incidentally, EFF councillors in Johannesburg were reportedly offered bribes in exchange for votes by an ANC official – based on an EFF press release on 21 August – ahead of the council’s first sitting on 22 August. The EFF may have been able to fend off such temptations this time. But not for long, especially as EFF cadres likely become increasingly frustrated, when it begins to seem like theirs’ would be lifelong political careers in opposition.
Heard of being ideologically pragmatic?
The majority of South Africans, whether poor or rich, want better service delivery. And they all want corruption to stop. And even if everyone agrees that the DA remains a white-dominated party, they see the good job the party did in Cape Town; albeit not perfect. Yet again, the DA gets to demonstrate it can keep its promises (in Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay this time): services would be delivered as and when due and there would not be corruption where it governs. In general elections scheduled for 2019, when the issue becomes less about the current embattled South African president, Mr Jacob Zuma, or the ANC for that matter, these credentials would stand the DA in good stead.
EFF needs to take heed of DA’s experience
Barring evidence, the EFF’s pitch was intuitively thought to be appealing to the majority of black and mostly poor South Africans. As it turns out, not very much. And recent local elections have proved that. I am not entirely surprised. The black South Africans I have met are aspirational. They want jobs. They want better service delivery. They want to go to malls, shop, and watch movies. They want to live the good life! So ultimately, they are going to vote for the party that provides them with the opportunity to have or do these things. The DA’s triumph at the recent local elections is evidence of this. And surely, there cannot be ideological differences between the EFF and DA on that. The EFF underperformed because apart from its revolutionary rhetoric, it did not offer much else. Having now not formed a single formal coalition that would enable it demonstrate that it too can deliver such ‘good’ things, what may now happen is that minority local governments, that most likely would flounder, get to be used by the ANC to prove the point that the devil you know is better than the saint you don’t.
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper back-page column (Tuesdays). See link viz. https://businessdayonline.com/eff-needs-to-introspect-as-well/