When Julius Malema, that intrepid and fiery young leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) recently arrived in Trumpian style minus his red overalls and gumboots aboard a private helicopter at Nkandla – the previously much-written-about homestead of former president Jacob Zuma – to drink tea with the Great Man himself, many eyebrows were raised in puzzlement.
What on earth did he hope to achieve from such a stunt? For a stunt it surely had to be, knowing Malema as we do. After all, had they not up to this point been arch enemies? Was it not Malema and his EFF fighters who had ferociously demanded Zuma should “pay back the money” for upgrades to that very same Nkandla where, for the benefit of press photographers and TV cameras, the two now sat sipping tea from delicate china cups, pinkies raised in true English style? As they say on the streets, “Hey bro, come on man, what’s up? Something’s going down”. Up or down – it’s not easy guessing which.
Well, by now we are all probably quite used to the entire world having been turned on its head by a wildfire pandemic called Covid-19. Nothing’s the same anymore or will be ever again. And politics in South Africa as we knew it no longer seems to exist, or at least, it too has been turned upside down. In what initially was a strangely frozen and silent political landscape, innovation and reinvention quickly became two key political words as the purveyors of politics frantically looked for new loudhailers with which to reach their prospective audiences wherever they were hidden in lockdown isolation.
Add to this –
the pressing urgency brought about by all political parties facing the most unpredictable of municipal elections later this year;
a governing ANC that on top of elections must hold a National General Council (NGC) where its major factions will face off for supremacy, do battle for the survival of the corrupt and damned versus that of President Cyril Ramaphosa and his backers, and where the future progress and direction of ‘radical economic transformation’ (RET) will be on the line; and
a country impoverished, divided and polarised even more by the inequality, divisions and hardships brought on by mounting debts and looming state bankruptcy amidst debilitating Covid-19 lockdowns and rules, with criticism of the governing ANC mounting on all sides across the gulfs of polarised division.
The governing ANC – divided as it is – held all the aces. Initially. Parliament was empty and inactive for most of last year and democratic oversight, checks and balances were passed by a draconian Disaster Management Act 57 of 2002 to a small cabal of autocrats and arbitrarian knee-jerkers known as the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC). This disconcertingly military-sounding ‘command council’ is headed by that would-be president (instead of Ramaphosa), one Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, in her capacity as Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA). She has since installed ‘command councils’ as a permanent governance feature right down to municipal district level. Does this imply longer-term ambitions?
While Parliament and opposition parties fell silent, the governing ANC at first rode the political wave with the president’s ‘family meetings’ – grave, televised announcements about how bad things were and the immensely restrictive measures required to make it better, when actually it made things worse. These were followed by the Command Council’s Supreme Leader expanding on the rules and regulations, and on more than one occasion overriding and contradicting her president, the ‘other leader’.
Then, through a combination of all of this, things started turning ugly for the ANC as the public’s suffering increased and sentiment turned against the ruling party and its leaders. This situation was exploited by opposition politicians whenever the opportunity arose, which was not very often.
For the ANC – or at least for one of its factions – its much-propagated fight against corruption is a big item with a view to the elections, if it can be properly managed and results can be presented to the good voting people. So, from this point of view it was beneficial that the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture continued with its work, as well as the National Prosecuting Authority, and whenever the occasion demanded, also the ANC’s integrity and disciplinary bodies. That is, until it started backfiring and presented more headaches than benefits to the ANC, or at least to the Ramaphosa faction.
Zuma defied the Zondo commission and the highest court of the land, as well as Ramaphosa and other ANC leaders. Magashule – charged with corruption like Zuma – defied Ramaphosa and some formal ANC structures, while the so-called ANC Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) military veterans – most of whom were not even born by the time MK disbanded and the armed struggle ended – jumped bravely to Zuma’s defence. And the president and all his men have themselves increasingly been presented with uncomfortable, unanswered questions. Turmoil became the ANC’s second name.
By now there was only one target up on the election wall – the ANC. And the coming municipal elections would be the first real opportunity to take aim. The elections were initially slated for August, then for anywhere between August and October, and lately November is being thrown around. The EFF has pleaded for their indefinite postponement unless the political landscape is normalised.
But in fact, there’s more than just the municipal elections many, especially some in the ANC, would want to see postponed until political ‘normality’ returns, such as the NGC, and ultimately the next elective National Conference too. The one precedes what could be a devastating election for the ANC, and the other follows shortly thereafter, should the elections indeed go ahead. Both are opportunities for dramatic shakeups and heads to roll, but on which side of the divide is anyone’s guess.
This is where the EFF and the often-under-estimated Malema saw an opportunity to further divide and rule. Enter the politics of populism, smoke and mirrors and the frustrating prospect of elections that may never be… and Malema’s ritzy and grand arrival in a helicopter at Nkandla. The meeting of these two old foes gave rise to much speculation. Some rumours held that the Zuma-Magashule RET faction were hoping to capitalise on the growth of Malema’s support, lure him back to the ANC, and merge his radical base with the radical wing of the ANC, thus empowering them to oust Ramaphosa and anoint Malema as the next president of the ANC and the land. Perhaps not impossible, but certainly seeming a bit far-fetched.
Another was that Malema, Zuma and Magashule all had common cause within the theatre of corruption in achieving Ramaphosa’s downfall. That could certainly be part of the plot, but not all of it. Far more likely, and in fact supported by whispers in various quarters, it was (a) an opportunity for Malema and the EFF to regain lost ground with the kind of public stunts and publicity they were known for before Covid-19, and (b) to drive the wedge deeper between the warring ANC factions and their respective leaders.
Indeed, the wedge went deeper. In pro-Ramaphosa circles many were wondering what Zuma and Malema (and Magashule in the background) were plotting against Ramaphosa and company.
Then last week, very tellingly, came the EFF’s letter to President Ramaphosa calling on him to allow political gatherings as part of normal campaigning in the run-up to the municipal elections this year. As indicated already, the ban on normal political activity has had an adverse impact, forcing political parties to work in innovative new ways. But perhaps none have been as badly affected by it as the EFF. As a ‘revolutionary’ and racial-nationalist populist party it relies heavily on outrageous public events for maximum publicity. These are designed to fire up its militant, frustrated and angry (mostly) youthful followers, followed by consolidating mass rallies as great shows of force and popularity.
The standard fare of populist politics simply is not possible under the autocratically decided (by the governing party) regulations of a state of disaster and national lockdowns. The EFF leaders have adapted to virtual performances and Twitter but arguably this fails to reach as many followers as before or fire them up like before, in the same way that the televised disruptions in Parliament or the militant, illegal land invasions with live national TV coverage, or the ‘impromptu’ political gatherings and speeches on the steps of various law courts, used to do. And mass rallies – where thousands of supporters are bused in from all over the country projecting a kind of mass militant carnival atmosphere – create the illusion of numerical strength and popularity, enticing others to join the ranks.
These are vital ingredients for an EFF election campaign if the party hopes to continue its growth of previous elections. The EFF has tried to compensate – with some measure of publicity success achieved – with events such as the stand-off with white farmers and right-wing groups at Senekal in the Free State, the clash with white conservatives outside a school in Brackenfell, and party leader Malema’s ritzy helicopter arrival at Nkandla for tea with his former arch foe, as the news cameras rolled.
The second largest party and current official opposition, the DA, has managed to adapt quite easily to the virtual environment using video broadcasts and virtual conferences instead of live events. But while this may reach its arguably more sophisticated core urban middleclass support base on their smart phones and laptops, this kind of messaging is unlikely to penetrate at grassroots level where it should if the party is hoping for any significant recovery or growth following its losses in 2019.
Neither the DA nor the EFF have performed well in recent by-elections, but these in themselves have been poorly supported and crippled by the pandemic-related regulations, so they are probably not a good measure of any political party’s current standing. The ANC has supported the call for reopening normal political space ahead of elections, but ironically it stands to benefit most from maintaining the status quo providing it is able to effectively exploit such an advantage, which it has not been able to do so far given all its internal ructions.
In fact, the opposite – having gone as government from reaping positive rewards for what was at first seen as good leadership with its initial response to Covid-19, to widespread condemnation of prolonged lockdowns, arbitrary, intrusive and rights-limiting regulations, and the loss of jobs, businesses and income. And the ban on normal political activity or not cuts two ways in the ANC, reflecting like all else on its factional divisions, but with some newly added agendas.
For the powerful secretary general Ace Magashule and his RET faction it makes sense to normalise political activity that will enable him to further grow (as he has already done) ANC membership and branches. This is where his power lies as opposed to his support on the NEC, where Ramaphosa has a slight edge. And this will be vital in preparation for a push against Ramaphosa at a well-attended real-life NGC.
However, for Magashule’s potential comrade-in-arms, Dlamini-Zuma, who on the one hand could also gain from an ANC grassroots expansion engineered by Magashule, it could also mean diluting her own de facto powerful ‘presidency’ as chair of the shadowy NCCC, that all-powerful cabinet within a cabinet. Ironically the Presidency has now referred the EFF letter to her and her COGTA department, the very ones who imposed these draconian measures on South Africans in the first place, and who now hold sway over the future of local politics. What a strange and most uncomfortable world Covid-19 has given us where transparency and reality has been lost among the political smoke and mirrors.
Stef Terblanche is an independent Cape Town-based political analyst/consultant and journalist.