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Johannesburg - The outcome of the May 7 elections could be determined by the underclass who are being offered an escape route by the EFF, while the ANC is slowly killing itself with a lack of political imagination and a bellyful of arrogance.
According to Achille Mbembe, a professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, Julius Malema is threatening the monopoly the ANC has had over the votes of the poor since 1994 and is the only force “that is being innovative in this campaign by offering a new concept, and that’s economic freedom”.
“What they are doing is breaking out of the established frameworks that the country has been operating within (unsuccessfully) for the past 20 years” with a powerful concept that “can re-animate the political landscape”.
“It is opening up people’s minds, telling them that there is an alternative. It’s now possible to imagine that we are not without alternatives.
“While the other parties are telling the electorate we should take care of the investors, the EFF is telling them we will take care of ourselves.
“That is something absolutely new that is likely to set the political lines moving.
“What the investors think cannot be the starting point.
“How we address the legacy of dehumanisation that translates into poverty and into tones of the daily indignities millions of people face is what is critically important.”
The voice message on Malema’s cellphone says it all: “We are not sorry for the inconvenience of the beneficiaries of the system. But this is a revolution.
“It is not a bed of roses. It is a struggle between the future and the past. We have refused to submit but chosen to fight for the economic freedom of our people. And we shall overcome. Salute.”
And yet many would argue that Malema is the least likely poster boy for economic emancipation, considering his brush with the law over the amassing of shady tenders in the past, while members of the EFF’s leadership, such as Dali Mpofu, wear their wealth unashamedly on their sleeves.
Is this not contradicting their core message?
“People can be very impressed by that bling,” says Mbembe.
“The message is quite strong. It is saying I know what it is to have money, I know what it is to be flashy but I also know what it is to be poor. It’s playing on all the registers and it’s more potent than contradictory because it taps into what people aspire to.”
Mbembe holds no brief for the EFF but is closely monitoring their performance in this campaign and the manner in which they are tapping into the massive underclass, a constituency that runs into tens of millions in number.
He is of the strong view that if the EFF pulls it off, it would “open a huge space for a very different political dispensation” to take hold.
Is Malema offering the right solutions?
“I’m not even talking about the solutions because there are no solutions. I’m talking about alternatives to the status quo. We will have a terrible future if the questions of poverty are not formulated or are left unaddressed. We have to find new ways of dealing with it.
“The mechanisms (employed by the ruling party for the past 20 years) have not allowed us to deal with the questions of inequality and equitable distribution and how everybody can have a fair share in the wealth of a nation.”
Is there any country in the world that has made that happen?
“It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try in South Africa. We have tried a little bit in Brazil, or in other parts of the world. Why can’t we do it better here? These are the kinds of questions we should be asking and which the EFF is trying to formulate, instead of bringing promises of jobs that become empty promises.
“If the ANC was unable to create 6 million jobs over the past 20 years, why do we think they can do it now?
“If you want to create 6 million jobs, you have to fundamentally revise the kinds of policies you have created in the past.”
Mbembe does not drive and commutes around Johannesburg by taxi, where he mingles with men and women from all walks of life and who he believes are “very demoralised” with the current ANC.
“People are outraged. They are troubled by what is going on. They are aware of the emergence of a kind of official culture that is very despondent when it comes to listening to citizens, who are treated like subjects by a man (Zuma) who sees himself as above any form of accountability.
“People used to see the ANC as a moral force, but that’s no longer the case. It’s a corrupt organisation. Nkandla reminds one of pillage, of looting of the state, and the use of the public purse as a private bank account.
“It’s what Mobutu (Sese Seko) and those dictators used to do. South Africa is becoming an ordinary African story, not a good story. The ANC is in fact hurting the poor.”
If the poor make up the greatest number of the electorate, then why is it that all polls are predicting a victory for the ANC (though they may be divided over whether or not the ruling party will get a two-thirds majority)?
“In the minds of many prevails the idea that your chances of having a house or making a life are still better with the ANC and the idea is to fight from within.
“Many people think, ‘If I change that (ANC) councillor and replace him with this (ANC) councillor, I will get my house. If I vote outside, I will be doomed.’
“That critical process of delinking from the ruling party has not happened yet and it can only happen through political education, which is not happening either.
“That’s why the ANC has become so arrogant, because they have a captured electorate. They will only listen the day they feel threatened at the polls, and we are not there yet.”
Will the ANC secure a two-thirds majority?
“Maybe in the rural areas they can get it, but in urban places like Gauteng I don’t see them doing it because the level of disaffection is quite high.”
Is the EFF the urban alternative?
“I am hearing a lot of people say I want the ANC to continue nationally but I’m willing to try the DA locally. People are not foolish. They respond positively to the perception that the DA is more efficient than the ANC. At the same time they are not convinced this party will fight for the interests of the black poor.”
“The DA is a conservative party. They haven’t understood what’s at stake (in terms of fundamentally addressing poverty). Or maybe they have and they don’t want to go there.
“It’s a white-dominated party. Just like the ANC is a black-dominated party. The drama of South Africa is that it still hasn’t de-racialised its politics. Very few white people vote for the ANC, so it doesn’t feel any obligation to listen to white public opinion. That’s the stark reality.”
Assuming the ANC is returned to power, but drops a few percentage points, how would that affect the public mood over the next few years?
“If they continue this abusive relationship with the poor, there will be trouble. If people’s basic concerns of housing, water, education, and a little bit of dignity are not addressed, the levels of anger will rise. We will see more protests and more violent protests, especially if corruption continues to rise in parallel.
“Corruption and repression are what the ANC is balancing right now. The level of police brutality has gone up. So if things don’t change, we will see these tendencies intensify.”
Can corruption be curbed?
“We are watching the rise of kleptocracy, of a class of thieves emerging. By class, I mean a group of people who are capable of developing an organisation that serves themselves and which thrives on a culture that says it is legitimate to steal from the public purse. Everyone at his or her own level is busy developing mechanisms to dispossess the state and appropriate what belongs to all of us.
“Through that shared culture you democratise looting and what we are witnessing now is the ‘Nigeria-isation’ of South Africa, and that is a terrible danger.”
So how does change come about?
“There are two conditions that must be met in order for change to happen: a united opposition front and divisions with the ruling party.
“If you don’t have those you will end up with hegemonic rule and the ANC will rule until Jesus comes.
“And that’s not such a silly statement,” Mbembe adds.
“For as long as the opposition parties don’t unite, the ANC is happy and Zuma is happy. They don’t need to account and they don’t need to listen.”