What are the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), South Africa’s third-largest parliamentary political party, up to?
Early this month, seemingly out of the blue, the EFF’s deputy president, Floyd Shivambu, launched an extraordinary attack on the treasury’s deputy director general, Ismail Momoniat.
His initial objection, or so he said, was that Momoniat was always appearing on behalf of the treasury at Parliament’s standing committee on finance, of which Shivambu is a member. This, he said, was to the exclusion of other senior staffers, including the director general and minister.
But why was this a problem? Because Momoniat is an Indian and his constant presence at Parliament on behalf of the treasury — in fact Momoniat himself directly — “undermines African leadership”. Momoniat “undermined Africans” by not taking seriously director general Dondo Mogajane, Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene or Deputy Finance Minister Mondli Gungubele.
“He thinks he is superior to them. He takes all the decisions and he is always here in Parliament as if he is national treasury alone. He is supposed to focus on what he is assigned to,” Shivambu said.
It was sudden and bizarre to start with and has got more, not less, so in the weeks that followed.
In the noisy echo chamber in which the EFF prefers to conduct its public engagements, Shivambu has not only been supported in his odious views, the attack has also been expanded to encompass all Indians for their supposed anti-African racism.
This includes those, like Momoniat, who distinguished themselves fighting against the institutionalised racism of apartheid and have since worked hard to build the African-led democratic state.
First, the party issued an official statement endorsing Shivambu and reiterating that “African leadership” is undermined in the treasury (where the minister, his deputy, the director general and half the deputy directors general are Africans). Then the self-styled “commander-in-chief’” of the party, Julius Malema, weighed in, alleging that if Momoniat had fought in the struggle against apartheid (yes, if) he would have “understood what Floyd was saying”.
“Why is treasury always represented by an Indian when there is 80% African staff? Because there is a tendency [for] our Indian brothers to look down at Africans,” Malema said. And of course, the cyberbots who make up the clear majority of the EFF’s supporters in the Twitterverse have been on overdrive, attacking anyone and everyone who raised even a murmur either in defence of Momoniat and the treasury, or in condemnation of the EFF’s race baiting.
Just what the hell is going on? It would be hard to characterise what the EFF is doing — the attack on the treasury followed by dog-whistling to African voters — as a strategy. That would suggest forethought, which is something I doubt went into Shivambu’s initial intervention at the finance committee meeting.
But there are at least two explanations for what the party is doing.
First, and more important in the immediate term, is the EFF’s long-standing problem with the treasury, particularly over its disruption of Limpopo-based troughs from which the EFF and its leadership have supped now and in the past.
The party has been alone in Parliament in its vehement opposition to the curatorship of VBS Mutual Bank, the Limpopo-based outfit that came to prominence when it offered Jacob Zuma a R7.8-million home loan in 2017 to help him to repay his Nkandla bill to the fiscus.
The bank’s generosity extended beyond Zuma and, according to some reports, the EFF and its leadership have also been beneficiaries. Momoniat is also widely credited as the architect of the very legislation of which VBS fell foul, the Public Finance Management Act and the Municipal Finance Management Act. This makes him an obvious target for those frustrated by legislation designed to prevent large-scale looting of the public coffers.
An invigorated treasury now also looks likely to re-establish the investigative architecture designed to detect and prosecute corruption in public finances. Among these is the high-level investigative unit at the South African Revenue Services (Sars), which was destroyed by suspended national commissioner Tom Moyane.
The dismantling of the unit was at the behest of Zuma and his cronies, many of whom included cigarette smugglers and other figures in the criminal underworld. One of these, Carnilinx, and its director Adriano Mazzotti, are funders of Malema and the EFF.
A treasury investigation into Carnilinx was among those disrupted by Moyane’s destructive agenda at Sars. This is one of the few occasions in which the interests of Zuma and Malema, implacable enemies otherwise, still coalesce.
But the EFF has another, more political, problem. Its messaging has been almost completely neutralised by the exit of Zuma from the presidency. The party is no longer able to pose as a credible anti-corruption voice, nor can it appeal to universal aversion to the Zuma project as the crutch on which to build an election strategy.
Given the noises the ANC is now making on some key political issues such as land and economic transformation, it is also no longer easy to claim the “progressive, pro-poor revolutionary” mantle the party has worn since 2014.
This appears to have led to a surprisingly desperate panic in its leadership ranks. So, the EFF has resorted to the exploitation of long-standing racial grievance among the country’s majority African population, which still occupies the bottom social rung in the hierarchy bequeathed to us by apartheid.
By targeting Indians in particular, the party is seeking to outflank the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, where this sort of ethnocentric politics is likely to find resonance. This is because of historical animosity between African and Indian communities in that province first and foremost, but also because of the likely weakening of ANC support owing to the ousting of Zuma and the rejection of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at Nasrec.
The EFF is eyeing the “Zulu nationalism” dividend and has determined that it cannot be left solely to the Inkatha Freedom Party to profit from it. Given that it is not itself a party of Zulu nationalism, what better way to appeal to it than to tap into long-established Zulu-Indian animosity?
If the party continues along this route — and it will if this deplorable tactic finds fertile ground in KwaZulu-Natal — the next target will be the coloured community in the Western Cape, where, if anything, the divisions are even more stark and ripe for political manipulation.
After all, both the old Nats and the Democratic Alliance have prospered by appealing to coloured chauvinism in that province. As in KwaZulu-Natal, the ANC there is divided and in disarray, unable to appeal either to coloureds or the burgeoning African population. The latter might well be receptive to EFF messaging that sets up coloureds as their primary “enemies”, and the EFF as their defenders against “coloured racism”.
All of this is of course dangerous for the body politic of a still racially cleft society such as ours. It also threatens to divert our energies away from the entrenched racial hierarchy that still has whites at the top and Africans at the bottom. But the EFF is desperate. Its financial taps could run dry because of what treasury does, and its easy, populist messages are being slowly stolen by an ANC rediscovering something of its voice in the post-Zuma period.
Who knows how far such a panic will take a party that is, after all, still as politically immature as the EFF is?
Vukani Mde is a founder and partner at Lefthook, a Johannesburg research and strategy consultancy