Without the spectre of Jacob Zuma smiling beatifically over the National Assembly, opposition parties are struggling to get the better of the ANC.
The Economic Freedom Fighter’s (EFF) dogged determination to have its most radical ideas implemented as government policies reminds the ANC of what it ought to be, of what it has failed to do. The EFF has become the revolutionary vanguard of the ANC, while the Democratic Alliance, dazed and confused, has resorted to a crude campaign of swart gevaar.
It has been a long, long time since the ANC had the upper hand in a political performance that did not require a simple enforcement of their majority but the current alignment of the ruling party has forced the opposition to concede ground to the ANC.
There could be no more true indication of this new politics than events in the National Assembly this week, when EFF leader Julius Malema, who in the Zuma era was better known for stinging one-line jabs and rousing the parliamentary security personnel, stood to beam approvingly at an ANC president.
“That is being presidential,” Malema said in praise of Cyril Ramaphosa on Wednesday. “Presidential,” Malema said again, before he took his seat.
Ramaphosa, in his first question-and-answer session as president of the country, faced heckling from opposition MPs, who pressed him for clarity on how much Zuma’s legal battles have cost so far, and what legal basis the state had used to foot these bills.
Ramaphosa said the state had spent R15.3-million on Zuma’s legal battles since 2006 but he could not say what legislation allowed the government to do so, and promised to “check” on it for the EFF.
He reassured MPs that Zuma had signed an agreement with the state that, if the courts ordered him to pay personal costs, he would repay public funds that were spent on his cases.
Ramaphosa’s response did not satisfy Malema, who had submitted the question. He demanded further clarity, pointing out that the EFF had submitted the question two weeks ago, giving Ramaphosa ample time to do the research.
“My question is not answered,” Malema said, pointing at the president.
In a scene reminiscent of so many Zuma parliamentary sessions, speaker Baleka Mbete moved to silence the opposition to protect the president but the EFF was having none of it. Floyd Shivambu stood up to support his leader in the chorus of dissent now led by the EFF benches.
Ramaphosa then quietly said to the speaker: “I will answer.”
He proceeded to talk calmly and reassuringly to Malema, almost like a parent addressing a child. He agreed that the question was important and required a proper response. “I would like you to accept that, having had an agreement [with Zuma] that was signed in constructing our answer, we focused on the agreement and did not go further to look at the legal provision or the policy. And that is why I said, if you listen carefully, we will be looking into that. I will give you an undertaking that we will come back on that,” he continued.
“Clearly, you are not satisfied with that answer because you want us to go further and look at the legal provision or the policy, which we shall do and come back to you. We will be able to do so within a week.”
In an instant, Ramaphosa had diffused the anger radiating off Malema. This time when Malema stood up, it was to give the president his approbation. This then is the new normal.
Zuma made opposition politics easy. He relied on the speaker to protect him in these cases, laughing when the opposition was forcibly removed from the Assembly and obfuscating in annoyance when he was pressed for clarity.
There’s none of that now. The opposition needs a clear articulation of policy to effectively stand up to the ANC.
And the EFF, however strident in their positions and apparently sincere in their articulation, rather than bolstering their own support, are becoming an asset of the ANC.
When the EFF submitted a motion to consider an amendment to the Constitution for expropriation of land without compensation, it forced the ruling party to start the process of following through on a promise that had lain dormant since the dawn of democracy.
In a simple analysis of the political play here, it is the fighters who are forcing the ruling party to move more radically to the left, it is the fighters who are forcing the ANC to reflect more deeply about who they actually are and what they are meant to stand for. The EFF, then, has come to play the role in the ANC that the South African Communist Party has long forfeited.
Although Zuma is the whole reason behind the EFF, it is instead the DA that appears most disadvantaged by this new formation of the ANC.
It has largely not been charmed by Ramaphosa, though DA MPs also applauded him when he referred to Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba in a reply to DA leader Mmusi Maimane about land reform. Maimane had asked for the state’s detailed plan to achieve land expropriation without compensation.
Ramaphosa could not provide details but he said the Constitution did allow the government to expropriate land without paying for it to achieve equitable access to land.
The DA heckled louder, asking: “Why do you want to change it?”
Their stance was that Parliament’s move to begin reviewing and making possible amendments to the Constitution to allow land expropriation without compensation was therefore nullified by Ramaphosa’s answer.
But their jeering turned into cheers when Ramaphosa said Mashaba’s plan to expropriate inner-city Johannesburg buildings whose owners could not be found was an example of the direction the state was turning to. Mashaba had earlier announced he would expropriate the buildings to create inner-city housing for poor people.
Very smartly, Ramaphosa was able to make the DA look rather silly. After all, if their own mayor was already doing what the ANC is considering, what exactly is the fuss about?
Ramaphosa did not hold back. He said that, like land grabs, which he condemned, panicky swart gevaar responses by political parties on the land issue should end.
“Nor should we resort to the kind of swart gevaar electioneering that some parties have resorted to,” he said.
Last weekend, the DA sent a bulk mailer SMS that read: “ANC & EFF working together to take all private land and homes. You can only stop this if you’re registered correctly to vote! Check now.”
The confusion in the DA was telling, with a party spokesperson first denying the message was an official party message, only for the head of communications to later confirm that it was indeed the party’s message.
So when Ramaphosa referred to Mashaba’s inner-city interventions, Ramaphosa had just delivered a rebuke so kindly, so patiently, the DA MPs appear to have mistaken it for praise.
Certainly the reports of the ANC’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. If anything, it is the ANC that has found new life, sucking the blood out of the opposition. How long this will sustain them depends on how well the opposition can feed them.
And the ANC, as we know well, is a hungry beast.