No place in SA for EFF’s ‘bro code’ politics
“The Democratic Alliance is sitting in a corner, mutilating itself, unprovoked.” This is one of the most memorable, if somewhat dark, comments made on my radio show over the past year by well-respected political analyst Professor Somadoda Fikeni.
He has a wry sense of humour with which he often delivers trenchant political insight in efficiently expressed sentences. The context in which he made this comment was an energetic radio debate I had hosted about the best strategic posture that opposition parties should adopt after Cyril Ramaphosa had succeeded Jacob Zuma as president of the ANC and, now, as president of the country.
Fikeni was analysing the unnecessary and avoidable strategic, tactical and communicative missteps of the DA. These include, but are not restricted to, the hot mess that is the Patricia de Lille saga, the failure to deal decisively with the divisive Helen Zille and, no less important but even more complex, poor ideological clarity about what exactly the party stands for, coupled with policy opacity on critical issues such as inequality, joblessness and low economic growth.
His nexus point was that the infighting in the DA is not prompted by anything the ANC is doing. It is unprovoked. It is unnecessary. It is, for the same reason, a gift to a governing party that otherwise should be having nightmares about whether it can recover quickly enough from the ruinous Zuma years a mere 18 months before a general election.
The DA, however, is not the only opposition party that seems to be a gift to the ANC. We need to talk about the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which also appears to be losing the plot — and needlessly so.
All political parties complain that the media give them a hard time. The DA’s Geordin Hill-Lewis penned a piece recently in which he claimed that the DA gets the most inaccurate and unkind political coverage. Hill-Lewis is also, as politicians go, one of the least recalcitrant and most pleasant to interact with. I enjoyed his serious criticism of the media.
But I also talked to him privately about the implicit claim that the ANC or the EFF are media darlings. Speak to someone like the EFF’s Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, with whom I have had this exact discussion before, and he in turn is utterly convinced that the EFF gets the most inaccurate and unkind political coverage.
ANC politicians moan the least often but, of course, whether that is because they are more comfortable with media criticism or complacent after years of favourable coverage by the biggest and most influential media outfit in the country, the public broadcaster, is a debate for another day.
I think that the EFF has, in fact, and contrary to what Ndlozi and others claim, been media darlings all along. Only recently have some political analysts and journalists begun to ask serious and tough questions about the content of the EFF’s political ideology, the desirability and feasibility of some of their policy prescriptions and other ideas, and have embarked on a political and ethical critique of some of their praxes.
The DA, for much longer now, has invited criticism from all and sundry. The goodwill for the EFF, however, has been enormous. They have, in the process, and maybe unconsciously so, become used to being treated with kid gloves. The consequence of this bad habit is that they now lash out, viciously, against anyone who is critical of them.
They are becoming increasingly recalcitrant and prone to personal attacks as a substitute for reasoned discussion. That is bad for the EFF and bad for democracy. It is worth examining some examples and asking what lurks beneath all of this.
When she was still at Power 98.7, broadcaster Joanne Joseph was simply doing her job when she asked fair questions about the nature of EFF political rhetoric in relation to the mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay, Athol Trollip. No one who has followed Joseph’s journalism career closely could ever accuse her of bias in favour of the DA. If anything, a party like the EFF is probably — and I am guessing here, because I have not asked her — a more natural home for Joseph, as a private citizen with left-wing intuitions and convictions, than the DA.
The job of the anchor is to hold power accountable. She did just that by asking the party whether political language evoking imagery of violence isn’t irresponsible, even if the intention of a communicator isn’t to provoke actual violence.
The unhealthy patriarchal attitudes from EFF leaders and supporters online in the days that followed was telling. They came after Joseph like a mob ripping apart a criminal in a community fed up with criminality. A mix of casual misogyny and racial prejudice was communicated with gay abandon.
When the party leaders and supporters aren’t substituting cogent argument with personal attack, they use other schoolboy debating tactics to evade substantive discussion.
There is a heated debate going on about what the name of Cape Town International Airport should be changed to. The EFF wants the airport to be named after Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. That is a good suggestion. It is not, however, the only suggestion. The party does not know what to do with interlocutors who do not share its viewpoint.
In a desperate attempt to avoid acknowledging the force of arguments that do not align with their own views, some EFF leaders, not unlike weak school debaters, have resorted to the straw person fallacy.
In other words, they deliberately mischaracterise what their opponents say and then pretend to have brilliant responses to these misdescriptions of what their opponents say. The only reason these non-responses even sound convincing is that they are responses to positions that no one advocated in the first place. For example, one EFF leader claims that many people are assuming that Mama Winnie has no Khoi heritage but that, for all we know, might be false. This is such a desperate move that it is hard to believe that a multi-degreed professional can tweet such hogwash sincerely. What it reveals is a fear to generously approach views you disagree with, even if that opens the possibility of you changing your mind.
Which brings me to the most dangerous development in EFF speech. There is a weird and unhealthy “bro code” politics developing in the party. In other words, if a senior EFF leader, like Floyd Shivambu, says something shockingly racist such as dismissing a public servant of Indian descent as not being African enough for his liking, then the party leadership falls in line behind the racism. They support each other, come hell or high water.
Advocate Dali Mpofu once bragged on my show that the EFF is the most internally cohesive of all the main parties in our country. He is right. But he failed to see why that is not obviously something worth bragging about. There is a danger here that needs to be guarded against. If you are a truly diverse political party that attracts people with diverse sets of opinions into your leadership ranks, then you should not agree on contentious matters all the time. Voters should be suspicious of a party that never appears to show disagreement in its ranks.
Can you honestly tell me that not one single EFF leader felt the pull of the arguments that maybe Cape Town International Airport should be called Krotoa International Airport? Not one single senior member of the party differs with party leader Julius Malema on this matter?
Can you honestly tell me that not one single EFF leader was uncomfortable with the comments that Shivambu made about the deputy director general of the treasury, Ismail Momoniat? That everyone sincerely believes that his race-baiting is a beautiful thing?
The EFF is important to our body politic because competitive politics, as many of us repeat often, is a precondition for a healthy and sustainable democracy. Governing parties, living off the nostalgia of liberal-era memory, decline over time, become jaded, develop an addiction to sins of incumbency and sometimes simply get tired and increasingly unimaginative.
But opposition parties do not have a built-in right to govern. They need to make a case for why they should be granted the privilege of being in government. The DA, as Fikeni rightly observes, messes up without provocation.
The EFF, in turn, is so used to being treated with kid gloves by the media, combined with feasting on an anti-Zuma diet, that it is now rattled. That is what lies at the root of their intolerance of criticism, and their slide towards inflammatory political language and praxes that do not bode well for what an EFF-led government might do.
It is not too late for the EFF to do better. If they don’t listen more generously to criticism, it will be their own fault if the ANC manages to stay in power for longer than it deserves to.