IF THE Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) were half as good at impressing voters as they are at enthralling journalists and commentators, they would form the next government.
It has become compulsory for what Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman calls "Serious People" to insist that the EFF is Very Important. Political reporters announce repeatedly that it is a growing force. Commentators continually warn against taking it too lightly (as virtually the entire debate takes it very seriously, who on earth are they warning?). EFF leaders are besieged with requests to discuss their ideas on air. It has become fashionable for suburban left-wingers to declare an intention to vote EFF.
Krugman’s Serious People are good at sounding important — but they share a view of the world that bears no resemblance to reality. And so it is worth asking if our Serious People’s crush on the EFF is based on any evidence of voter support more substantial than the claim by one pundit that the media should take the EFF seriously because it is very good at attracting media coverage!
When Serious People are pressed for evidence, they say the EFF is popular on social media. True — but it also attracts hostility on these media. As social media probably reach only one in 10 voters, that does not necessarily mean many votes.
We are also told that it attracts large crowds. But attendances tend to be grossly exaggerated because the media believe anything the EFF tells them. Its manifesto launch was said to have attracted 50,000, but the venue holds only 10,000: it would have been physically impossible to cram anything like the claimed number into the space.
Much is also made of the EFF’s method, pioneered by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, of arriving at conflicts reported by the media and then telling local people what they want to hear. If you denounce the government to people whose loved ones have just been shot by police, they are sure to cheer you. But this does not mean they will vote for you.
At Marikana, EFF leader Julius Malema was said to have staged a coup by taking over the memorial ceremony for the killed mine workers. The next day, strikers who had attended the service chanted the name of their favoured politician — Bantu Holomisa.
Thus far, no one has cast a vote for the EFF so claims that it has mass support are guesswork. It is formed out of three wings, none of which has a strong record of mobilising grassroots people.
Some African National Congress (ANC) voters are talking about voting EFF in protest, but we have no idea whether they will do what they say.
Nor does what we know of the parties’ support leave a whole lot for the EFF. If the ANC wins 60% (Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille’s estimate) and her party gets 25% (roughly repeating its performance at the last local election), about 15% is left to be divided among many parties, some of which have loyal constituencies.
How any of this produces a large vote for the EFF is unclear. So the frenzy says more about the Serious People than the EFF.
Why has it become a fashion statement to talk up the EFF?
First and most obvious, journalists (and commentators) like excitement. The EFF is theatrical and noisy and it makes good copy. This also makes it well-suited to enable commentators to sound learned and important. And, as those who drive our public debate tend to talk mainly to each other, it is easy to create a reality that is shared by the insiders but bears no resemblance to the world outside. Second, some on the left seem to be attracted to anything that confirms that the ANC has sold out on radical change.
The EFF is not a left-wing party — its message is racial nationalism with a strong military flavour. Several political science words can be attached to this, but "left-wing" is not one of them. (Right-wing governments are, for example, also sometimes known to nationalise assets.)
Nor is it democratic: democratic parties elect their leaders — and they don’t call them commander-in-chief.
A real left-wing party may soon be with us — it will come out of the trade union movement, not from middle-class groups who feel that political change has not offered them enough. But for some on the left, the nature of the EFF is irrelevant — anyone who accuses the government of selling out must be a good idea.
Third, the EFF ignites a deep-rooted middle-class fear that most poor people are deeply angry, determined to get their hands on what others own, and are waiting to follow a demagogue who will exhort them to rise up and despoil the affluent.
We have been there before: Madikizela-Mandela used to inspire much the same fears and so the same mythology attached to her. But the fear had no substance: she never had enough support to seek national office.
So, the next time you read or hear Serious People talking up the EFF, look for the substance in what they say. You are likely to find none at all.
By Steven Friedman
Source: Business Day
Party leader Julius Malema waves to Economic Freedom Fighters supporters at the launch of its election manifesto in Tembisa, east of Johannesburg, last month. Picture: REUTERS
Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.