EFF must avoid tactical blunders

The EFF is in danger of staying in the news, while forgetting the political aims that are the reasons for its very existence, writes Eusebius McKaiser.

The EFF has a lot to be proud of as a new political party. They continue to break the sound barrier by influencing the news agenda on a weekly basis, long after the final election count has been declared by the IEC.

An Economic Freedom Fighter is escorted by police from the premises of the Gauteng legislature after members of the EFF, along with their leader, Julius Malema, invaded the legislature. Photo: Itumeleng English. Credit: INLSA

But being in the news, and influencing the news agenda, are not the same things as achieving your political mandate, and self-chosen party goals. The party is in danger of staying in the news, while forgetting the political aims that – on paper at least – are the reasons for its very existence.

First, though, let’s take stock of what the party, despite being a youngster, is doing right. As someone interested in the state of opposition politics, I am particularly excited by the fact that the DA has competition. Real competition, and not the pseudo-competition from other small parties that have come and gone, and the ones that have stayed but with a terminal decline in electoral support.

The EFF is better organised than any of these parties have been, and they represent a clear ideological break from the ahistorical, colour-blind market fundamentalism of the DA, and for that matter of the governing ANC, which is no different, really, but for a slavish commitment to the deceptive rhetoric of being a pro-poor, broad political church.

There is more that separates the EFF from the largest two political parties in the country, than there are ideological and policy differences between those two parties, the ANC and the DA.

This achievement is particularly impressive if you take into account that most of the leadership of the EFF is young, and so cannot milk stories of involvement in the liberation Struggle, and also impressive in the context of the flawed Cope initiative which many voters might have taken as reason to not bet on yet another new political entrant. So, the EFF can pat itself on the back for that much.

In addition, being different for its own sake, of course, would be both pointless, and not much of an achievement. The AWB was distinctive. That tells us nothing about the desirability of the content of their ideals. In the EFF, however, the differentiation is emotionally and politically on-point.

The party’s blunt commitment to radicalising policy debates, and political discourse, so as to help shift economic power from the haves to the have-nots, is exactly what is needed in a political market consisting of millions of South Africans who are on the wrong side of the unemployment and inequality divides.

However, despite these positive attributes, the past two or three weeks have shown us that the careful execution of a political mandate is critical. A great vision poorly executed is a wasted one. And that is the danger the EFF must now avoid. It is making unnecessary tactical blunders, while still having a broader strategy that can resonate with many South Africans. Tactics are the tools you use to achieve your strategic goals. And if you make tactical blunders, you might lose a game even if your strategic intent was compelling.

Take this issue that is really becoming dull now, that of the overalls and domestic workers’ uniforms the EFF wear. I have little doubt that none of the provincial or national legislature chairpersons would be able to make a good legal, let alone political, case for why the EFF can’t wear these outfits.

In fact, if any of them could make that case, they would have articulated those arguments rather than simply abusing their powers by ordering EFF politicians to leave a sitting of the legislature without due explanation of why they, as chairpersons, were exercising their public powers rationally.

So unless and until better reasons are proffered, one can reasonably assume that, at worst, these chairpersons are abusing their authority to help the ANC or, at best, are simply incompetent in the sense of lacking a genuine understanding of the rules that govern these British-inherited habits, and how to interpret them.

The EFF responded, in my view, disastrously. The party should calculate the impact of its actions, not just in terms of whether or not it is right in law, but also by taking into account what perceptions will build up in the public space if they choose particular courses of action.

And I am afraid, as any good lawyer like advocate Dali Mpofu would surely agree, even cases winnable in court may not be worth pursuing if they will not be won in the court of public opinion. And when it comes to politics, public opinion is key.

The party is coming across as obsessed with fighting for its right to not call Buti Manamela “Honourable” in Parliament, and its right to wear clean domestic-worker outfits in Parliament. Surely the party would rather sustain a reputation for relentless fighting (rightly or wrongly) for land to be transferred more quickly from those who have it illegally or immorally, to those who are entitled to have it, historically; for better socio-economic conditions in mining towns, including increases in wage levels for workers at the bottom of the salary ladder; for a deeply historical, and race realist, approach to policy debate in general; etc.

And these topics are not entirely off their radar yet. But there is a disproportionate amount of time, resources and general political capital being wasted on issues, like the norms of Parliament, that are interesting, and not utterly unimportant, but a helluva lot less important than focusing on the material conditions of the poor and the destitute.

It would be a pity were tactical blunders to cost the EFF fatally. They have plenty of time still, fortunately, to avoid becoming Cope II.

For the sake of political competition, which is crucial for the maturation of our democratic culture, let’s hope the new political kids become adults before it’s too late.