The ANC base under threat

R.W. JOHNSON  /  The news that the ANC is considering terminating its coalition pact with the EFF, apart from showing that the course of true love never did run smooth, is ripe with irony. The pact was unveiled initially as a means of guaranteeing that the ANC maintained majority power in a number of municipalities where it was threatened by the loss of power. But, of course, these were also a dry run for the 2024 election. The ANC was clearly threatened by a loss of support and faced with the need for a coalition partner, had little difficulty in deciding that a deal with the EFF was far preferable to one with the DA. After all, the EFF largely shared its ideology and traditions, and it was a black party.

So what has gone wrong ? The report by David Makhura says that the relationship needs to be reviewed because “it is more damaging than helpful”. Why is that ? Because “The EFF  uses coalitions to contest the ANC’s social base and further damage its brand”. Indeed, the Makhura document quotes internal ANC research showing that “in by-elections the EFF is still growing mainly in the traditional social base of the ANC.  Its growth is levelling up below 20%”.

Moreover, the document continues, while the EFF theoretically abides by the constitution and presents itself as “an anti-establishment party”, “in reality it is a proto-fascist party run dictatorially”. It is difficult, at this point, to know whether to laugh or cry. After all, it has never been a secret that Malema runs the EFF on militaristic grounds, that he ruthlessly sacks anyone whom he thinks has not come up to scratch – and because that means that budding EFF politicians are regularly scythed down, not only does it mean that no potential leadership rival is ever allowed to emerge, but they don’t even achieve sufficient local notoriety to build a secure local base. The result is that after ten years of the EFF there has never yet been a contested leadership election and that Malema runs the party as his own private fiefdom.

This is presumably where the term “proto-fascist” comes in, for the EFF is run on the Fuhrerprinzip (leadership principle) just as much as the Nazis were. Such extreme centralisation of power also tends to mean that the movement has to accept all manner of surprise moves and giddying turns for the Leader is effectively responsible to no one but himself. And just as loyal Nazis followed Hitler without question – in reversing himself to make the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and then reversing that by invading Russia, and then declaring war on America – so loyal EFF members have had to support Malema campaigning flat out for Zuma against Mbeki, then turning completely against Zuma (“Pay back the money !”) and then suddenly taking tea with Zuma, suggesting that the two men, to coin a phrase, are as thick as thieves. In effect Malema requires and gets the sort of unconditional support that no DA or ANC leader could hope for.

To which one has to add a de facto tolerance of corruption. It is now often forgotten that it was Malema and his henchmen who pioneered “tenderpreneurship” in his home province of Limpopo. And Malema has never hidden the fact that he lives high on the hog and clearly has access to much unexplained money. Similarly, the fact that the EFF leadership was clearly involved in the VBS scandal is widely known.

But what is one to make of the Makhura report ? It is surely very strange to accuse the EFF of using its coalitions with the ANC as an opportunity to court the ANC base ? That is, after all, what political parties do. Politics is a competitive game. Doubtless, if the ANC could win over EFF activists to its side, it would do so. Nobody suggested that the normal rules of political competition should be suspended just because the two parties had opted for a tactical alliance.

What is really striking, though, is the defensive tone of Makhura’s report.  It is perfectly clear – the polling data shows it and doubtless David Makhura has seen much first-hand evidence – that the EFF is enjoying considerable success in stealing voters from the ANC. And this is not an experience the ANC has had before. It is used to the notion that its vote is solid, almost impermeable. But as we know, the ANC is currently losing 16.5% of its 2019 vote tally of 57.5% – that is to say, for every hundred voters it had in 2019 it has lost 28. Losses on that scale are inevitably deeply demoralising. Moreover, in some provinces the EFF may even be able to displace the ANC as the largest African nationalist party. Once that happens it may become irreversible.

If the situation is as dire as that, how will the ANC react ? Pulling out of coalitions with the EFF may not be a way of staunching these losses. The disillusionment with the ANC stems from the party’s failures over jobs, electricity, water and other bread-and-butter issues and it is not obvious that cancelling coalition arrangements with the EFF can turn that around. What is clear, though, is that the ANC’s losses are most noticeable in urban, especially metropolitan areas.

The sense that the ANC vote is shrinking and even that the ANC may be on the brink of a historic defeat will inevitably breed a spirit of desperation among ANC loyalists and particularly among ANC elected representatives and office-holders as also those dependent on ANC patronage. This in turn is likely to lead to desperate attempts to hang on to the ANC vote among its “captured” constituencies.

Two stand out: the first is the recipients of social grants who are quite routinely told that the maintenance of their grants depends on their loyalty to the ANC. The other “captured” group is rural voters whose loyalty to the ANC is often “enforced” by local chiefs and headmen. In both these cases one must expect the pressures exercised on these constituencies to increase. It is not a pleasant prospect. Essentially it means bullying and intimidating poor people into agreeing to your continued rule, an exact inversion of what democracy is supposed to entail. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is exactly the means that the Zanu-PF elite have used to stay in power for the last twenty-three years in Zimbabwe. Whether this will be enough in South Africa’s larger and more complex polity remains to be seen.

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