Onkgopotse JJ Tabane.
The party shocked all of us by choosing the political road less travelled, choosing not to rush to occupy positions of power but instead playing politics like chess, writes Onkgopotse JJ Tabane.

When the EFF burst onto the scene in 2014, I was among the sceptics who dismissed them as a group of disgruntled ANC Youth Leaguers who would probably amount to nothing. I am here to eat my words.

The EFF has dispatched itself extremely well in the four short years of its existence and has shaken the South African political landscape more than any other splinter party in the history of the ANC. Even the PAC, which broke away on ideological grounds, cannot claim a fraction of the success of the EFF as a solid alternative to its mother body.

I had harsh words against Malema as someone whose demagoguery was well known to me first-hand but, after his sterling track record, I am the first to withdraw my dismissive words against him and rather listen to Dali Mpofu’s argument that the fellow who wanted to die for Zuma has since grown up in leaps and bounds. 

No one can disagree that Malema has punched way above [his weight] as a 30-year-old over the last four years and can easily be counted among the most powerful politicians of our time.

He is a smart strategist who is set for great things in the future of South Africa. But beyond this charismatic leader, a strength but possibly also a weakness for the new party, let’s assess the nuts and bolts of the DNA of the EFF’s impact on our body politic over the last four years.

The national Parliament is the pinnacle of the governance of South Africa. Its existence as the crossroads of the triangle of governance is crucial and sits at the centre of our constitutional state.

Over the last two decades this centre of accountability was taken for granted, with parties no longer fielding their best to fill up the seats in Cape Town .

When the EFF fielded their best in 2014 this picture changed. What used to be a slumberland turned into a new fierce platform of political contest. The EFF can solely be credited for the resurrection of Parliament as a place where the national pulse of discourse can now be felt. 

A few years ago, when Cope entered parliament, I wrote a piece that suggested that if Parliament were to be closed no one would be bothered. I could never suggest such a thing today, because the EFF has made Parliament matter.

Quite frankly, the EFF saved Parliament from the toothless body that the ANC had turned it into, making ministers take it for granted and the president disregard it. The Nkandla saga alone restored the teeth Parliament has and we have seen MPs beginning to take their rightful place in holding the executive to account.

Make no mistake, though, this impact did not come without collateral damage. The erstwhile decorum of the house and the exposition of poor leadership across the political spectrum were some of the revelations of the fifth democratic Parliament.

One of the things that the EFF has been able to thrust into the national discourse is what can loosely be termed policy distortion. Because the EFF policies are frankly not original, but an X-rated version of ANC policies, the ANC has not yet figured out how to counter the EFF without being seen to be kow-towing to their erstwhile youth league.

This has caused utter chaos within the movement but, ironically, positioned the EFF as a thought leader on the crucial issue of economic emancipation. The land policy schizophrenia within the ANC was a direct result of this undeniable impact by the EFF. Who would have ever thought that the ANC would be divided about whether to support an EFF-sponsored parliamentary motion on land?

The EFF’s radical approach is now likely to be adopted by an ANC conference this December, placing the ANC toe-to-toe with the EFF on convincing the voter about who is more serious about land reform. 

Other economic questions can be understood similarly with the ANC’s belated sloganeering about Radical Economic Transformation seen only as a poor response to the EFF’s consistency on propagating for radical economic change. The ANC has had 23 years to implement such policies, to no avail.

It is no exaggeration that the EFF has mastered mass mobilisation more than any other party in South Africa, culminating in a relatively good showing from zero to more than 800 representatives across South Africa’s municipalities.

The visible support on campaigns, marches, rallies and door-to-door mobilisation can be compared with parties with long-standing organisational machineries, ie the ANC and the DA.  

The ANC did not do itself any favours by publicly failing to fill up the Nelson Mandela Stadium last year before the local poll, leading to its dismal performance in the elections.

While the EFF did not convince a single municipality to hand it total governance, only the totally blind won’t come to the conclusion that the EFF was the biggest winner of the local government elections while its nemesis, the ANC, was the biggest loser.

The EFF shocked all of us by choosing the political road less travelled - it chose not to rush to occupy positions of power but instead playing politics like chess, giving itself space to grow and be better prepared to take over the governance of South Africa in the future. I struggled to find too many people who faulted this approach.

We should, however, not ignore the alternative narrative that they should have picked one centre of excellence where they could test some of their rather unrealistic policies. The EFF’s Achilles Heel is probably their policy exuberance as contained in their so-called seven cardinal pillars.

The most popular of these is the nationalisation of mines. While initially they seemed to be calling for wholesale nationalisation they have since revised this to limited nationalisation of mines which may well not be far from the exuberant pronouncements made by the minister of minerals.

Their policy has yet to stand robust scrutiny in this regard and will need them to win national elections to implement, in any event.

The generic reference to nationalisation of other strategic sectors of the economy, most notably the banks, remains above the heads of even the most radical of economists. This is likely to be what makes those who want to come closer to the EFF sceptical.

This policy of nationalising banks makes the EFF more radical than even the Communists who want Socialism now. So they get a nought from me, not for dreaming and imagining the world being a kinder place, but for not applying their minds to the tactics of economic revolution where this is concerned.

I agree with the EFF that we need a reformed state with high capacity. The proposition to get rid of tenders makes no sense at all. No matter how capacitated the state can become, there would be things that it cannot do by itself, because it is not, and should not be, its core business.

I understand the need for the EFF to be seen to be against tenders because of their own background in being wrongly involved in the practice not so long ago.

But the truth is there is nothing wrong with tenders - there is everything wrong with corruption over tenders. 

Tenders are a way of bringing citizens on board to complement the capacity of the state and a good government will use its brain to determine which areas of delivery it will outsource and which it will insource.

At the end of the day, the EFF has proved to be the mover and shaker of our politics; whether it be making Zuma pay back the money or kicking the ANC off its perch in three big metros - you can only ignore the EFF at your peril. 

In view of future governance, it is important to ask the question: Can the EFF lead our nation out of the terrible economic picture brought on by the Zuma administration, or will their policy trajectory always need moderation to survive the hard global realities?

The EFF has to guard against the cult of personality. Julius Malema is a larger-than-life personality whose passion and energy will not be replicated easily across all spheres of governance where the EFF is hoping to make an impact.

Leaders like Dali Mpofu, Floyd Shivambu, Gadricjh Ghadi and Mandisa Mashego must take more centre stage in articulating what the EFF is about. This will be in keeping with the EFF as a mass-based party and not a splinter led by one charismatic leader - this was an excellent start of a government-in-waiting but a lot of slog lies ahead if that dream is to materialise.

* Tabane is the author of Let’s Talk Frankly and host of Power Perspective on Power 98.7

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