Politics and Commentary
The EFF, the Tea Party and the end of left vs right
On the whole, I’m glad that the Economic Freedom Fighters are a part of our political landscape – if for no other reason than that they present South Africa’s voters with another option at the polls. As the controversial “Vote NO” campaign has shown, voting options are precisely what many South Africans feel they lack.
For those dissatisfied with the government, it’s better to vote for pretty much anyone (apart from the ruling party) than it is to spoil a ballot deliberately. High-minded spoilers are really just indulging in a form of political onanism when they walk into the voting booth: they feel good about themselves and can claim to have participated in the democratic process but theirs is essentially a private – dare one say selfish – act with no public consequence.
“But the Independent Electoral Commission counts spoilt votes,” the would-be spoilers declare, “Our protest will be registered!” Well, the IEC does count spoilt votes; it includes them in the tally of total voters, and voter turnout figures are then used as a measure of the legitimacy of an election. So by voting-but-not-voting, you actually give more weight to the unspoilt ballots that decide who will sit in parliament.
Gwede Mantashe knows this, and chuckles quietly from Luthuli House at the people who refuse to vote until they find a political party that perfectly matches their self-image. Democracy is a messy, compromised and compromising business; you have to accept it as such and be pragmatic when you mark your X. Principled stances are all very well, but they don’t change anything.
It’s worth asking, then, what has changed or will change as a result of the EFF’s presence on the ballot paper. Political analyst Stephen Grootes has suggested that the vocal, albeit marginal, support for Julius Malema and company – recent polls put this at 4-6% – is one of the factors contributing to the African National Congress’ “slow jump to the right”. The ANC, suggests Grootes, “may want to claim the mantle of the more sober and trustworthy party ... if it tried to suggest big changes in the economic sphere after the elections, it would look too close to the EFF.”
But the ANC also risks losing to the EFF voters of a more socialist bent who, as things stand, are barely kept loyal through the presence of the Congress of South African Trade Unions in the tripartite alliance (it’s safe to say that the South African Communist Party has only symbolic value in this regard). In the next election cycle a real workers’ party may emerge from a split COSATU, but for now the threat facing the ANC is that the EFF appeals more to old-school socialists than the almost-moribund SACP.
Consequently, the ANC has felt a greater pressure than ever to practice its doublespeak: the “party of the people” one day, the “party of business” the next. Or perhaps, to apply Grootes’ terms, it’s a case of talking left and acting right – a disjunction between rhetoric and policy to match that other defining characteristic of the ANC, which is a disjunction between policy and practice.
Curiously, this is a comparable situation to the influence of the Tea Party on Republican politicians in the United States. Within the GOP, Tea Party affiliation counts for a lot; but Republican electoral candidates have to distance themselves from the movement because moderate and swing voters (correctly) identify its extremism. In Congress, Republican senators adopt a “Vote No, Hope Yes” policy: they have to be seen by conservative lobbyists to resist President Obama and the Democrats at all costs, but – on issues such as raising the debt ceiling – they secretly want legislation to pass so that their home constituencies aren’t negatively affected.
Of course, while the Tea Party remains a faction within the Republican Party, as an offshoot of the ANC (via Malema in his Youth League days) the EFF is driven by Oedipal impulses to attack its now-derided “father” party. The majority support base of the Tea Party is white and wealthy and older; that of the EFF is black and poor and younger. The Tea Party wants free markets and limited state intervention; the EFF wants nationalisation. And yet, notwithstanding their ostensible ideological differences, it is instructive to consider some similarities between the two.
Both movements have gathered impetus from a form of historical mythologising. The Tea Party takes its name from the famous incident in 1773 when demonstrators dumped a shipment of British tea into the Boston harbour – a protest against “taxation without representation” that was one of the key episodes in the American Revolution. The EFF claims as its sacred text the Freedom Charter, and positions itself as the latter-day heir of the signatories to that document.
In both cases, however, the appropriation of a proud moment in a nation’s history is disingenuous. Prominent Tea Party activists use the Boston incident to invoke a centuries-long discourse of “anti-taxation” to protect the wealth of corporations and individuals from being taxed for public use. The Tea Party presents itself as an advocate of the rights of the “average American” but its effect is, really, to preserve privilege and aggravate economic inequality.
The EFF points to the process of nationalisation implied by the Freedom Charter – transfer of wealth to “the ownership of the people as a whole”. But the red berets are led by a man whose recent past attests to corrupt self-enrichment and cronyism. Although many idealists in the EFF have the best of intentions, there is nothing in Julius Malema’s record of behaviour or personal finances to indicate that he cares for “the people as a whole”.
It’s worth noting that the battle between Malema and the South African Revenue Service has a parallel in the United States Internal Revenue Service investigations into Tea Party tax evasion. Political activists, no matter what they say when you give them a microphone, are like those biblical trees: by their fruits ye shall know them. The faith they espouse counts for nothing when it is exposed as hypocritical.
In this light, the EFF and the Tea Party together show that terms like “left” and “right” can be empty (or, at least, outdated) signifiers. “Big government”, “small government” – these concepts are not in themselves either good or bad, nor in fact are they mutually exclusive. Cambridge University’s Ha-Joon Chang argues that many economic success stories “combine extreme elements of capitalism and socialism” (he identifies Singapore as a prime example).
Chang asserts that even the concept of a “free market” is determined by politics: by the way a society defines what is “free”. This perspective makes the hand-wringing about, for instance, the Democratic Alliance’s shift away from a firmly “libertarian” stance seem rather foolish. It might also offer a vindication of the ANC’s Janus-headed approach if that organisation weren’t irredeemably corrupt and morally bankrupt.
Finally, it would seem to indicate that economic hard-liners like the Tea Party and the EFF – particularly because of the dubious ethical credibility of some of their most prominent members – have limited long-term prospects. The Tea Party is already in decline in the United States. In a few years’ time, will the same be true of the EFF in South Africa?