Durban 16012014 Juluis Malema and Mangosuthu Buthelezi at a Joint EFF and IFP press conference at Durban Manor. Picture: Jacques Naude

South Africans from all class backgrounds share Malema’s anger at ANC’s corruption and elitism, writes Susan Booysen.

The electoral fortunes for the ANC and its EFF nemesis are tied to whether ANC-inclined voters will look past the ruling party’s leadership failings and let their higher estimation of the ANC as an organisation rule.

Should the scandals and controversies stop pencils from marking the ANC block on the ballot paper, the EFF as a vehicle of “loyal opposition” might just be voters’ second choice.

The recent Freedom House research report, “Twenty Years of South African Democracy”, clarifies why the EFF is seen as loyal opposition and why EFF leader Julius Malema’s fountain of truths to power, especially to the president, threatens ANC electoral margins.

Praise for Malema in challenging the ANC president came from rural and urban South Africans, from all class backgrounds.

The future-fact survey further illustrates President Jacob Zuma’s liability to the ANC. It finds that voters whose support for the ANC is wavering record a threefold increase in their no-confidence scores for Zuma.

There are also potential traps for the EFF as it evolves into a serious political player. As it morphs into a seemingly reasonable, conciliatory party, it risks losing exactly the appeal it has to many voters.

The Khoisan and IFP have been praising the EFF for reaching out. The EFF shows respect and counters past criticisms of Malema.

Research shows, however, that voters love hearing Malema “speaking out of turn”, on his terms, to an ANC plagued by elitism, corruption and lack of accountability. As slurs and slights roll off Malema’s tongue he articulates what is on the tips of many silent tongues.

ANC-inclined voters see his hypocritical side, but value the frank Malema outbursts “when the ANC leaders want him silent”.

The support that the EFF is gathering from ANC dissenters and new voters bored with stale party politics annex the percentage points the ANC needs to maintain glory as a century-old liberation movement, or be confirmed as a party safe from serial electoral slippage.

While the November 2013 Ipsos poll gave the EFF 4 percent national support, the identity it carves for itself in the next few weeks will determine whether this becomes 8 percent.

Thus far, the EFF is the receptacle for anger and disappointment with the ANC. Traditional ANC supporters are not ready to turn in numbers to the DA to express discontent with the ANC.

The Freedom House research demonstrates that the EFF benefits from the perception that it embodies loyal opposition: Malema and the EFF are seen as having emerged from the ANC; they are the ANC’s children.

The EFF’s support in the Ipsos survey is to some extent evidence of the repeat phenomenon of the South African voter looking for an outlet for loyal opposition. In 2009 it was the Congress of the People that mustered 7 percent of the vote.

Cope then permitted voters to marry recognition of the struggle and its sacrifices with trying to get a different ANC. Five years on, and the EFF is tapping into the need to show “loyally” that the ANC is not matching voter expectations.

The pilgrims on this trail see Malema as speaking the language of “truth to power”. They hardly care that Malema and his consorts have dubious records dealing with public funds in Limpopo, that he still faces legal action and that he may end up with a criminal record.

If and when his trial materialises he could be disqualified from occupying a seat in Parliament.

Citizens often do not really care! Given that “corruption is so commonplace in the top ANC”, why is it being held against Malema, they ask. Several Travelgate MPs roam the corridors of power, undeterred and unaffected because they were on the right political side.

Ironically, many citizens count on the Malema Fighters’ frankness to help squeeze corruption out of the party that they still revere.

EFF sympathisers in the Freedom House research do not always care much about the EFF’s more left-oriented policy positions, or its “revolutionary” positioning.

The mantra of “the return of land and national riches to the rightful owners” strikes emotive chords, but the verdict is often that nationalisation is “unrealistic”.

They wonder: Could nationalisation veil more of the same, of leaders monopolising national resources for elitist good? Others, however, hope that nationalisation could bring more jobs.

Ambitious EFF policy promulgations do not deter EFF sympathisers. After all, just look at the ANC’s long-standing aspirational proclamations on jobs and job opportunities. The research also showed that South Africa’s cynical voters do not hold out much hope that election promises will come true generally.

From the ANC itself in the last week they heard that government is giving itself five years to work on the campaign promise to investigate modalities for a national minimum wage… Why would these citizens hold the EFF’s problems with policy against it?

Electoral support for the EFF will not equate with believing that the EFF can run a better government, or do better on basic delivery (here the ANC often does not fare entirely poorly).

Vote-switching away from the ANC this year will often simply be to get ANC leadership to be more accountable and less elitist and superficially elevated.

The South African voter eschews elitism in the name of “selfless struggle”. In Malema and the EFF they see rebellion against leadership cabals that excel at service to themselves.

These citizens see that Malema “has suffered” financially for having stood up against the exact leaders who hold their own welfare so dearly. They love Malema for the fact that he remains angry.

A vote for Malema could become a baton for the accountability and people-centredness they so miss.

The killings of Marikana also tilt some voters towards the EFF.

In line with Peter Alexander’s recent Marikana analysis, project participants specifically noted that the trigger-happy police and the government’s seeming failure to repent have changed their feelings about the ANC.

Love or hate the EFF, citizens in the research project know the EFF, its leadership, symbols and regalia.

It is a serious political player, they believe.

Even a few of the grannies in the project declared that they would “wear the red beret” for Malema.

The study also delivered identity-related criticisms of the EFF, for example when young minority group participants argue that Malema “takes the youth back into history too often” just when they themselves believe that they have started carving non-racial identities for themselves.

Central to these questions is whether the EFF can become a party that will carve a credible identity, yet still articulate with a diverse constituency. Also, does the appeal of the EFF lie in its knee-jerk and insult repertoire, or is the more mature and seemingly strategic Malema the key to broad appeal?

Above all, does the EFF have the ability to help catalyse an alignment of broadly left political and trade union groupings that could by 2019 take the place of the DA as a rising opposition force?

* Booysen is professor at Wits University and author of The ANC and the Regeneration of Political Power. Parts of this analysis draw on her research report for Freedom House, “Twenty years of South African democracy: citizen views of human rights, governance and the political system”.

*** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.

- Sunday Independent