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Split-off parties in survival race

Agang SA leader Dr Mamphela Ramphele during her party's election campaign in Temba, Hammanskraal. Photo: Phill Magakoe

Agang SA leader Dr Mamphela Ramphele during her party's election campaign in Temba, Hammanskraal. Photo: Phill Magakoe

Published Jul 13, 2014


As Malema tries to buck the trend by exposing the ANC’s flanks, the EFF is still vulnerable, writes Susan Booysen.


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Opposition politics in South Africa is a story of rising and shooting stars, with prospects for exceptions to the rule. It is an endurance race to dent ANC majorities. Survival is conceivable, but the price exacting.

Only a few opposition parties will survive to grow, especially if they fish in ANC waters. This week’s victim was AgangSA.

The EFF is fending off a storm of challenges, but its head is above water. One eye is on organisational consolidation, the other on shooting holes in ANC establishment politics. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa’s budding United Front is in the eye of the storm. The ANC aims to keep it there.

Opposition parties often underestimate the challenge, which extends beyond electoral skirmish. Whether by design or natural instinct of self-preservation, the ANC unremittingly sabotages parties that come “from the loin of the lamb”.

Most debilitating is the ANC counter-attack veiled in the discourse of the “aberrant child who will again see the light” and return to the lap of the forgiving parent.

New opposition parties in South Africa arise with fanfare, offering riveting critiques of the flawed, but commanding, ANC.

Until now, the opposition stories frequently turned into implosion or, at best, diminution and humiliation. The EFF “street-fighters”, schooled in ANC politics and its tricks of the trade, are working to buck the trend.

AgangSA demonstrated how penetrating, frequently valid and widely accepted critiques of the ANC could fail to translate into votes. In the electoral arena Mamphela Ramphele and Agang sounded lame, unauthentic.

The modest electoral verdict still offered water in the trough, but her own party came to cannibalise her. It could not even advance to the point of establishing formal leadership structures… Cope’s ghost hovers.

Is a similar fate awaiting the EFF, currently negotiating a rough post-electoral patch? Does it have what it takes to buck the trend?

The EFF is battling both its own ANC-related ghosts (some were executioners in previous rounds of mother-body revenge on dissidents in split-off parties) and real ANC infiltration spooks.

In the past two weeks it had to counter accusations of internal dictatorship, inconsistency in negotiating its way around “parliamentary perks”, and marginalising some leaders.

It is a quagmire of authentic criticisms, poison dished out by “agents” and suspicions about which commentator is in whose pocket. It is a platitude by now that the ANC does not take prisoners when it comes to split-off opposition parties – the EFF, Cope, the UDM and, much earlier, the PAC. The ANC has a formidable reputation and repertoire in containing dangerous opposition party tendencies. The ANC hardly felt threatened by Agang. No special interventions were required. Ramphele’s Agang ownership and electoral rebuff sufficed.

Agang targeted the ANC’s demographic catchment area, but take-off was never in sight. Nevertheless, big brother the ANC was hovering over a business sector that might otherwise have been seduced into bankrolling Agang. The DA-Agang debacle followed – the poorly consulted, then aborted merger-whatever, left egg on both Ramphele and Helen Zille’s faces. It followed (not precipitated) a collapse in Agang’s poll support.

The 0.28 percent national electoral support was the nail in the coffin. The battle on who was to go to Parliament, pay the bills, reclaim the Independent Electoral Commission deposit are flirtations with the skeletons in the closet.

The only surprise is that there is anybody who wishes to pick up the Agang pieces.

The EFF story is more comparable to those of the UDM and Cope, albeit with unfolding policy-ideology difference. Little David faces juggernaut Goliath, while munching away at the ANC support base. It irks the ANC, its president and his handmaidens.

The EFF specialises in rolling embarrassments to the ruling party. It highlights the incongruities that have become synonymous with the ANC’s 20 years in power.

ANC spokesman Zizi “there was no internal structure to destroy Cope” Kodwa reassured the nation that the ANC was innocent in undermining opposition parties. Sabotage of opposition parties, the ANC? Never.

Of course, the ANC had no such structure. No bodies, no documents; just a clever party doing its business of maintaining power. Just as the ANC NEC neither produced a recorded agenda point nor a formal discussion on having Nelson Mandela’s instead of President Jacob Zuma’s face on the 2014 ballot. It is the age of leaks: discussions happen, no fingerprints.

But chunks of divulged information add up to reveal how big brother ANC prevents opposition parties from gaining election ground or turning into post-election menaces.

There are ways of containment, besides making full use of the perks of incumbency. Against such background, fighter “paranoia” (as inferred in a few media reports), if it exists, appears rather rational.

A few examples follow.

Recall the Cope experience. An ANC source related to me how, while aspiring Cope supporters were singing Thabo Mbeki’s praises at the Sandton Convention Centre in September 2008, “ANC cadres rolled out across the hills of the Eastern Cape. We knew who was in the villages, who in Sandton… From there on, it was easy to counter Cope.”

The recent Community Agency for Social Enquiry report on intimidation in party politics details how the ANC, courtesy of being the guardian of state power, disarms opposition parties.

Meeting and rally venues become scarce commodities. Opposition parties book them, but keys go missing come the day of the meeting, supervisors “abscond” or “there is an unfortunate double booking, sorry”.

As the EFF found out in Atteridgeville in May – the stadium, booked for its final pre-election rally – suddenly required “essential maintenance”. The EFF knew the ruses and won the battle, even if it took legal recourse and wasted campaign hours.

Malema reminded a recent EFF media briefing: he was a centrepiece in previous rounds of comparable action…

Fascinating question: does this strengthen the EFF’s armour?

The fight to destabilise the inconvenient parties is unfolding around the legislatures. Sceptical ones might recall Cope deputy president (inexperienced politician) Lynda Odendaal in tears in an opening debate in Parliament, following unkind ANC remarks.

She soon defected to the ANC, searching for affirmation. The rest of Cope is history. Its opposition story got lost in intractable court battles to assert leadership. Many returned to the ANC; others relocated to the EFF or DA.

Fast forward to 2014, and stories pop up of how ANC MPs and MPLs try to play with Fighter heads. “Don’t worry, you will return” is the patronising narrative they share with their EFF counterparts.

The EFF, like Agang, but with different likely outcomes, is in a vulnerable party political stage. It is post-election, and its performance did not deliver positions to all pre-election hopefuls.

Suspicions of infiltration by the ANC abound. To its advantage it has a tight, internally well-accepted set of leaders who will take it into its year-end founding conference. This week it announced the timelines to the conference and its elections. It mobilises on the ground, and appeals to angry workers, protest communities and Association of Mining and Construction Union (Amcu) workers.

What better way then but to sow discord, and create phantom and distracting structures?

The sudden new “trade union”, the National Trade Union Congress, apparently formed by (now former) EFF member Eddie Mothiba, raises questions.

Next, EFF members were reported to have formed the Economic Liberation and Allied Workers’ Union.

Malema stepped in: it is Amcu that the EFF will be working with; an EFF union will be formed in the “right time”.

Dirty tricks? Possibly yes. But don’t expect to find too many smoking guns. It is the labyrinth of traps and obstructions that opposition parties “negotiate”. The election was the easy part.


* Booysen is professor at Wits School of Governance and author of The ANC and the Regeneration of Political Power.

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

Sunday Independent

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