UNLESS Songezo Zibi's Rise Mzansi unexpectedly emerges as a mainstream party in the coming months, it seems the EFF is the only party capable of capturing significant support from the ANC.
Opinion polls have lost credibility lately, but the one thing most recent polls have in common is that the EFF could garner more than 15%, and possibly up to 20%, of the vote in the general election.
The DA and ActionSA are competing with each other and with other smaller parties for the white, brown and Indian vote, as well as a relatively small group of black, mostly urban middle-class voters who have long abandoned the ANC. The Freedom Front focuses on white, mostly Afrikaans-speaking voters, the IFP on Zulu speakers and the Patriotic Alliance on brown voters.
The ANC will undoubtedly pull a few populist rabbits out of the hat in the election campaign, promising voters the sun, the moon and the stars. However, the impact of the declining economy, the power crisis, water problems, unemployment and serious crime might cost it 10% or more of its 57.5% support in 2019. (The DA received 20.77% of the votes, the EFF 10.8%, the IFP 3.38% and the FF+ 2.38%.)
Commentators and analysts like myself have been saying for years with great conviction that the EFF's theatrics, ethnic nationalism, violent tendencies and socialist economic model would inevitably make it difficult for it to break the 10% ceiling.
However, people like me in the US also declared that Americans would never elect a political clown like Donald Trump as president, and people like me in Italy, Argentina and the Netherlands confidently stated that right-wing populists such as Giorgia Meloni, Javier Milei and Geert Wilders were too radical and peripheral to garner significant support.
Years of social media, immigration, the Covid-19 pandemic, extreme weather events and economic turbulence are part of the explanation for why otherwise moderate voters nowadays have a greater appetite for noisy, braggadocious disruptors with an authoritarian streak.
Something drastic must be done to get us out of the mess, is the mindset, and for that we need a strong, decisive leader. Never mind policy.
The Trump slogan “drain the swamp", referring to the political elite, has been copied by his Argentine fanboy Milei (he calls them “la casta"), and was also a theme in the campaigns of Meloni and Wilders. The fact that they are members of the elite did not matter.
All of this may also apply here in South Africa, although factors other than an overwhelming sense of frustration, hopelessness and disdain for the political elite also play a strong role in making the EFF suddenly acceptable.
It is important to remember that a recent survey by Afrobarometer found that more than half of voters are willing to trade democracy and personal freedom for better state services and more job opportunities.
The wisdom about the EFF's 10% ceiling was valid for most of its 10-year existence, but clearly no longer.
One development that has not been taken into consideration is that several leaders of the ANC's former RET faction have crossed to the EFF and may take a considerable number of their supporters with them.
There are many rumours that former secretary-general Ace Magashule is also donning a red overall, while Mzwanele Manyi, still Jacob Zuma's spokesperson, and former public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane are already EFF parliamentarians.
The decline on almost every level in the past few years, and the realisation that Cyril Ramaphosa cannot stop the downward spiral, have caused more and more urban black people to drift away from the ANC. A large number chose not to vote in 2019, but the crisis is now too palpable, and many are seeking a new political home.
That new home should have been the party that has proven at provincial and local levels that it can be trusted with clean and effective governance: the DA.
An astonishing ignorance of the dynamics of black politics — or is it a refusal to accept its realities? — and a stubborn adherence to white liberal orthodoxy ensured the DA wasted this opportunity.
When the DA declined for the first time in the general election of 2019 (with 2.5% less support than in 2014), the leadership did not understand that it was largely due to the national expectation that Ramaphosa's New Dawn would steer the country away from Jacob Zuma's debacle.
They were shocked when some of their voters switched to the Freedom Front on the right, and the party crawled into its white shell.
It blamed national leader Mmusi Maimane. And when Helen Zille was elected as the chairperson of the federal council on October 20, 2019, the wheels came off with first Herman Mashaba then Maimane and veteran Athol Trollip resigning.
In his farewell speech, Maimane said despite his best efforts, “the DA is not the vehicle best suited to take forward the vision of building one South Africa for all".
With few exceptions, the black leaders in the DA left the party one after another, and today the national leadership is overwhelmingly white, with John Steenhuisen as the leader.
Zille and her colleagues did not listen to good advice that a black or brown leader should be prepared for the position. We are colour-blind, and we believe in meritocracy, they declared. Now the party has finally realised that it needs to present a black leadership face in 2024 and it is courting businessman and political newcomer Roger Jardine.
Mashaba, Trollip and other former DA leaders are running ActionSA with reasonable black support, especially in Soweto, but the party does not meet the high expectations of its leaders. According to an Ipsos survey released a month ago, ActionSA is expected to receive only 4% support.
(According to Ipsos, the ANC's support among registered voters is at 43%, the DA at 20%, the EFF at 18% and the IFP at 5%.)
If disillusioned ANC voters are not inclined towards the DA or ActionSA, one can assume many of them will vote for the EFF.
There is only one party leader in South Africa who qualifies as a strongman disruptor, a showman in the class of Trump, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán, Milei or Wilders: Julius Sello Malema.
No matter how many times he flip-flops, becomes mired in scandals or lives like a billionaire, he is a political operator without equal and remains the symbol of black assertiveness and dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Considering how influential a national presence the EFF has with just 10.8% support, we can assume the political climate and agendas will change significantly if it doubles its vote total next year.
The Ramaphosa faction in the ANC, especially the Veterans League, is opposed to a possible coalition with the EFF if the ANC needs a partner to govern.
But if the Multiparty Charter (the DA, ActionSA, IFP and FF+ coalition) defeats the ANC in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, which is entirely possible, the pressure from those provinces to stay in power with the EFF might be too strong for Ramaphosa and company to resist.
Race is the only arrow in the EFF's quiver but the ANC will also play the race card in its election campaign, as we recently saw with attacks on the private sector (#whitemonopoly capital) and the recalling of the injustices of the apartheid era.
If the EFF gets a whiff closer to election day that the ANC is considering a coalition with the Multiparty Charter, the accusation that the ANC is selling out to whites will be overwhelming. Perhaps too overwhelming for the ANC to resist, especially if the EFF then becomes the second-largest party.
But all of this is hypothetical, because the ANC might well get more than 50% or close enough to form a majority with small parties.
We can be sure the ANC will get one thing right: it will ensure enough diesel is imported during the month before election day so that Eskom's power generators can run day and night.
♦ VWB ♦
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