November 25, 2020

What does change in presidency mean for opposition?

The DA and EFF gained a lot from the disaster that was Zuma. Both made impressive gains at the polls in recent years with the result that electoral politics, and Parliament, have been reinvigorated as sites of public contention, writes Imraan Buccus.

Zuma did indeed play a great role in the struggle but all this has been marred by his failed presidency. Zuma’s disastrous reign has finally come to an end and there is euphoric optimism about the man who has been waiting in history’s wings – Cyril Ramaphosa.

There is no doubt that Ramaphosa promises to be a vastly better President than Zuma and this is good cause for excitement. But one of the unintended silver linings of the Zuma disaster is that it was a huge boon to opposition parties. The DA and the EFF both stormed ahead under Zuma.

Neither party has what it takes to confront the challenges of our country. The DA has not decisively broken with its white origins, has failed to deal with an increasingly out of control Helen Zille and its neoliberal policies offer nothing but misery to most South Africans.

The EFF is characterized by crass opportunism, deep hypocrisy, crude misogyny, racial chauvinism and an authoritarian populism that sometimes descends into neo-fascist demagoguery.

But as flawed as these two parties are they have both made impressive gains at the polls in recent years with the result that electoral politics, and parliament, have been reinvigorated as sites of public contention. This is good for our democracy. Of course the emergence of a credible alternative would be better for our democracy but, in the absence of a democratic socialist, or even social democratic, party the mere fact that there is an increasingly competitive electoral sphere is a good thing.

In recent years, the DA and the EFF have both centered their political strategies around opposition to Zuma. Of course it was a sure fire strategy.

But in recent years, the DA and the EFF have both centered their political strategies around opposition to Zuma. Of course it was a sure fire strategy. Opposition to Zuma was wildly popular and both parties grew rapidly by opposing Zuma. But now that Zuma is out; the DA and the EFF suddenly look very shaky.

There is not just because there is a real conflict in the DA, and an extraordinary turnover of MPs within the EFF. It is because the focus on Zuma has left both parties struggling for relevance in the coming post-Zuma era. The EFF’s descent into tactics often associated with fascism, namely attacks on shops, have the ring of desperation. They are also dangerous in that they legitimate the mobilisation of public thuggery by political parties.

Both parties will have to avoid cheap stunts and develop credible visions of the future that can distinguish them from Ramaphosa’s ANC. If, as early indications show, Ramaphosa works to develop an anti-corruption platform and stimulates economic growth, the DA will literally have the rug pulled out from under its feet.

The black middle classes will return to the ANC, as well as the more progressive elements among the white middle class. If Ramaphosa rebuilds a commitment to non-racialism many coloured and Indian voters, of all classes, are likely to return to the party too.

The real challenge for Ramaphosa will be to isolate and then marginalise or even expel the corrupt and criminal elements within the party, as well as the ethnic and racial chauvinists. This is not small matter and he may not have the political will, or, if he does, be successful. But if he can achieve this the DA will have face rapid decline in terms of its fortunes at the polls.

Like the DA, the EFF will take a big hit. In recent years its antics in parliament have won the party support from a wide range of people appalled by Zuma. But the broad support will evaporate now. The problem for the EFF is that its toxic mixture of political authoritarianism and an extremely statist set of economic policies – essentially amounting to the idea that everything should be nationalised – has zero chance of building economic freedom for anyone other than the party leaders and their cronies. There is not a country on the planet that has built a wealthy and equal society but simply nationalising everything in sight.

This is not a socialist program, which would aim at workers control in the factories and the mines, and peasant control over the land. Socialist is a fundamentally democratic vision for society that aims to extend democracy into the economic realm. The EFF’s statism is the direct opposite. It is a fundamentally authoritarian vision that would result in immediate economic catastrophe that would impoverish us all except for the party leaders at the top of the economic system. It would not be difficult for the ANC, under a credible leader, to point out to voters that people are starving, not thriving in North Korea.  

In an important recent article Adam Habib has argued “Sensible deliberative conversation cannot be substituted by political spectacle if we want productive outcomes that are in line with our social justice obligations.” If Ramaphosa’s ANC can build a culture of ‘sensible deliberative conversation’ and put an end to the demagoguery of the Zuma years, a rot that continues with people like Fikile Mabalula and others, the EFF will rapidly be revealed as what they are – demagogues using a politics of cheap spectacle to win publicly from an often naïve and incompetent media.

Of course if Ramaphosa is not able to isolate the corrupt and demagogic elements within his party the puerile nature of the EFF’s politics will not be made clear, and the DA will retain the space to position itself as a rational and less corrupt alternative. But the wind is now at Ramaphosa’s back, history is on his side, as are the masses of the people who are deeply disgusted at Zuma’s grotesque conduct.

A politician is never as strong as their first day in office. They come in with real power that is then lost as each day passes. If Ramaphosa understands this and acts decisively in his first days in office the DA and the EFF will both take a real hammering in 2019.

Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation.

Distributed by the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute.

Last modified on Monday, 19 February 2018 20:46

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