The EFF are facing a major test when it comes to parliamentary benefits but is it just hypocrisy at play, or the seduction of institutionalised power?
It didn’t take long.
One minute they were shouting about economic freedom in our lifetime, next they were taking home R933 852 and contemplating the buffet options in Parliament.
It’s hard not to be cynical about the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) given the latest news from the red berets. Leader Julius Malema will be sending his son, he of the Ratanang Trust fame, to a private school after all. See, when they said all public representatives should use public facilities like state schools and hospitals they didn’t mean now, silly. When they’re in government, mos, and Everything Is Awesome (with apologies to Lego). No point setting an example now.
The next news item from the people doing it for the workers was even more disturbing. They were angry, incensed even, that they had to pay R4 300 a month for medical aid. There was no word on the fact that they only shell out R250 a month on lush state accommodation with free gardening services. And forget about the free travel to work and over 80 free flights plus a few thrown in for the kids, spouses and parents.
“The scheme, which will take a minimum of R4 300 from each member of Parliament is by far one of the most expensive in the country,” bleated the party.
I’m all for free and quality healthcare for all people. So are the EFF naturally, who concluded its statement on Wednesday saying that “the principle should be that members of Parliament, together with the entire Cabinet, should be forced to use [the] public healthcare over which they preside.”
Except that this is a lot like what it said about state education and we saw how that worked in practice – not in principle. My bet is: if the EFF had their way with the medical aid, they would simply choose a cheaper medical aid option and not put themselves at the mercy of state hospitals. Until they were in power, of course.
But really this story is about more than predictable hypocrisy from the red corner in Parliament. Individual agency versus structure is a tricky thing. You can rage against the machine when that machine is a water gun and rubber bullets in the streets. You can even rage against it when it’s a ruling party that has drop-kicked you into the political cold.
But when that machine is a comfortable nine-to-five with free accommodation and a foothold into the corridors of power, it’s a lot harder to fight. Is the EFF being seduced by power? Daunted by the scale of the system? Perhaps. But so would nearly anyone in its position.
They went in fighting, defying the dress code in overalls and domestic workers’ dress and swearing to fight for the common man.
It was akin to the impressive energy the party brought to the 2014 national election. In existence for just seven months, they dominated media coverage and the public discourse disproportionate to their size, thanks to their knack for political theatre.
But this is a fight that demands more than political theatre.
Can one small group of green individuals resist this kind of temptation when it is so powerfully institutionalised?
It appears not.
I argued before that the EFF have already shown, in its U-turn on election irregularities, how institutional power can be incredibly seductive once your interests are aligned to it.
Now, as they settle in uneasily into their 25 seats in the National Assembly, the party is battling the gap between lofty and unrealistic promises, and human nature.
Their lives have done a 180-degree turn. From giving up all political power and in several cases jobs, they have landed one of the cushiest jobs in the land.
Plus they go from being political nobodies to rubbing shoulders with heavyweight politicians in the bonhomie of parliamentary lunch breaks and functions.
One of their leaders, black consciousness activist and commentator Andile Mngxitama, wrote about his first week in Parliament for the Mail & Guardian last week. It was a strangely prophetic piece ahead of the temptations facing the party this week. He spoke about the excess of food, speaking “to the problem of post-colonial gluttony”. And then there was the soporific effect of the very seating in Parliament.
“The seating reminds one of how battery chickens are treated: they are kept in cubicles or single cells so small they can’t turn around; they are fed, forced to breed and then discarded,” he wrote.
Towards the end of his piece he recalls a nightmare he had after his first sitting in Parliament.
“The mace was carried by strange white giants. It was like being in hell ... I woke up prematurely. This nightmare is not over.”
Indeed it is not. The real fight for the EFF has only just begun.