In the same week that the rest of South Africa, including most white and black people, celebrated heart-warming progress towards non-racialism in our cricket and rugby teams, the EFF chose to launch another vitriolic racist attack. There is a pattern emerging that puts the EFF at odds, not only with the Constitution, which enshrines non-racialism, but with the mood of the overwhelming majority of South Africans who want to live together in peace.
Floyd Shivambu, Julius Malema’s deputy in the EFF, described by one journalist as a ‘deeply unpleasant man,’ abused his parliamentary immunity to attack the highly respected deputy director-general of the Department of Finance, Ismail Momoniat, a person of Indian-South African origin, for being ‘non-African’ and for undermining African leadership at ministerial and top level in the Treasury. This is part of what Shivambu said: "To him (Momoniat), leadership that deserves respect is only those of Indian, Coloured or White origin.”
Apart from the suspicion that there is an ulterior motive behind the attack, relating perhaps to unpleasant revelations to come about EFF involvement in the VBS Bank scandal, or even about the complicated tax affairs of leading members of the EFF, this was yet another example of the racism of Shivambu and his party. What shocked was that the expected repudiation never came. Instead, Julius Malema, the EFF and the Twitter Trolls they use, came out in support of Shivambu.
In a highly unusual move, National Treasury responded to the Shivambu remarks, accusing the EFF of displaying a "gross misunderstanding of parliamentary processes" and said it was responding because of its "vitriol and simply the scale of the EFF’s ignorance". Most commentators understood the racism of the message, but some, like the highly regarded Ferial Haffejee, seemed to miss the point, stressing that Momoniat has an outstanding record from the struggle. This ignores the fact that excellent war record or not, each South African, of whatever origin, is a person of worth and is entitled to be respected on the basis of equality with everyone else.
There is of course, a part of South Africa that despises and rejects ‘the other.’ Those who belong to majorities sometimes feel that about minorities and vice versa. These are basically the extremists of the left or the right. Every survey and every indication is that these racists on the fringes are a small minority. Malema and the EFF have no aspirations about winning the support of the right-wingers, but they certainly seem to be trying to make the left-wing racists their own constituency. One wonders how clever this is. Of course, there are people who have nothing to lose and it is sometimes tempting for parties like the EFF to exploit them, make many promises and to rubbish whites, Indians and coloured people, none of whom would ever vote for the EFF anyway.
There are some very clever people in the EFF and Malema himself, as well as Shivambu, the strategist, should not be underestimated. They seemed very sure-footed for a long while, with a genius for self-publicity and appearing to punch far beyond their weight. That reputation for strategic shrewdness was cemented after the local government elections, where the results were a huge disappointment to the EFF. In the period from the 2014 general election, in which the EFF polled 6% of the vote, their vote share grew only to 8%.
The failure of the EFF was masked by the fact that in several of the Metro Councils, the ANC fell below a majority and with EFF support, DA led coalitions took over power. By voting on a case-by-case-basis and not going into formal coalitions, the EFF became the king-makers, without the responsibility of office. The DA follows pro-poor policies anyway, and at least in Johannesburg and Tshwane, two gifted and highly effective mayors have managed quite well.
Signs of a loss of strategic direction by the EFF were the extraordinary way in which they permitted the ANC to get out of the bind of government failure to properly tackle land reform for a generation. Instead of holding the ANC to account for the policy ineffectiveness, looting, elite enrichment and insufficient budgets, the EFF gifted the ANC the perfect excuse: it is the Constitution that has prevented the ANC from success. That was a very silly mistake by the EFF that gave away their best election rallying cry. Another is their amazing idea that all land should belong, not to the people who live on it or work it, but to the state. When explained to the poor, that will not be nearly as popular as their previous attitude that people should just go ahead and take land, because it was stolen from them by the whites.
The Nelson Mandela Bay fiasco made Malema and his party look utterly foolish. Malema told DA Mayor Trollip, “Hahaha, you are going white man. I’ve got no sympathy for whiteness, it feels so good for a black child to determine the future of the white one.” Sounding as though he had a pathological and deep-seated feeling of inferiority, Malema was unable to carry a vote of no-confidence and Trollip remains the mayor.
South Africa could do with a political party to the left of the ANC and the EFF could fulfil a valuable role in giving voice to the concerns of the poor, the disaffected and especially the unemployed – if only they would produce respectable policy proposals and solutions. But if they continue with their racist diatribes and strategic incoherence they may well find a sizeable chunk of their potential support going to the DA and the ANC. Political growth in the next election is not a given and every by-election result shows that the EFF is not growing, despite their huge, sympathetic media coverage.
Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and former ambassador to Thailand. This article first appeared in The Star newspaper.