Just what are the red berets up to now?
Many have noted that the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has mounted angry, but unsubstantiated, attacks on Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s corruption-buster at state-owned enterprises. The EFF has also supported former South African Revenue Service head Tom Moyane, whom the Nugent commission of inquiry into tax administration and governance at Sars revealed was a major contributor to state capture.
Journalists have speculated that the EFF seems to be working for the state capturers. But why? After all, EFF leader Julius Malema announced himself as a political force by taking on then-president Jacob Zuma’s ANC faction about corruption, so this turnabout should make no sense, at least to EFF supporters.
Let’s consider some scenarios.
The most benign possibility is that the EFF is competing with Zuma’s ANC faction for their voters.
Both parties target (mostly black) voters scarred by deindustrialisation, unemployment and widening economic inequality, whose lived experience makes them amenable to the claim that big (white) business is to blame for their current situation.
In that context, Malema’s calling Gordhan a “dog of white monopoly capital” sounds like it’s copied from Zuma’s playbook for last year’s ANC election. But this option doesn’t quite fit the evidence. If Malema were trying to win votes from a competitor, we could expect him also to disparage the Zuma faction to set up the EFF as a better choice. Instead, Malema is exclusively targeting the Zuma faction’s enemies, while working more closely with the Zuma faction. So we can rule out that this is vote competition.
The second — currently popular — hypothesis is that the EFF is under pressure because of the discovery of its involvement in the looting of VBS Mutual Bank. After the R16-million deposited into EFF organiser Brian Shivambu’s bank account, a stream of evidence has shown that the money was spent on Malema and EFF deputy president Floyd Shivambu, such as a deposit paid for a townhouse in Fourways for Floyd, a home in Johannesburg’s prestigious suburb, Sandhurst, allegedly for Malema, and R5-million paid directly to Malema’s cousin.
In this scenario, Malema and Shivambu have realised that being linked to corruption involving poorblack workers’s savings is a dealbreaker for their poor black voter base. Their escalation of the rhetoric about white monopoly capital and their attacks on corruption-busters thus have a twofold aim — to distract civil and legal society from focusing on VBS, and to convince their existing and potential supporters that the VBS events were invented to bring the EFF into disrepute.
Indeed, Malema recently claimed the VBS story is an attempt to disguise “white corruption”. The EFF’s past strategy of attacking the Zuma faction “kleptocracy” (as Malema called them) segues into an attack on white business, to reassure the EFF’s existing voters and win new ones.
That scenario is probably true to some degree, especially in framing how Malema plans to spin the situation to his voters.
But it still doesn’t explain all that’s going on. After the VBS discovery Malema has become more inflammatory, but in a different way. He shows less and less restraint in making unsubstantiated allegations, such as claims linking Gordhan’s daughter to corruption while at Investec, and instead of using journalists to get publicity, he has begun “naming and shaming” supposedly anti-EFF journalists, which risks prosecution for incitement to violence, or at least for defamation.
He acts as though he believes the law cannot touch him. And maybe it can’t, because law-makers have shown no inclination to act against him even after the treasury’s VBS report by advocate Terry Motau, titled The Great Bank Heist.
Here the question becomes: Why is the paralysis of state legal agencies, engineered by Zuma’s faction during the Gupta years, being used to protect Malema and the EFF? Malema has a clear ambition to make the EFF this country’s major party, so he should be perceived as an enemy of the entire ANC, but especially the Zuma faction, because he would take their supporters first.
There are enough examples of law-enforcement agencies being used to frame enemies (such as the Hawks’s charges brought against Sars employees after KPMG’s “rogue unit” report) that, if the EFF was seen as an enemy, we could expect the National Prosecuting Authority to magically become unparalysed and prosecute them. VBS has only implicated municipal ANC officials, after all, so the EFF could be made a national scapegoat.
Because that hasn’t happened, we can conclude the Zuma faction no longer sees Malema as an enemy. Instead, Atul Gupta has begun retweeting Malema’s messages, so it seems they’ve begun to see each other as comrades in arms.
This third scenario then presents itself as the possibility that Zuma’s ANC and the EFF have joined forces. There’s motivation to do so: Malema has surely realised that, if the Ramaphosa faction stays dominant, sooner or later he will be called to account for VBS.
If so, only the Zuma faction’s current paralysing of South Africa’s legal entities stands between Malema and prison. That’s a very good reason for Malema to suddenly start seeing the Zuma faction as his best friends.
Doing so might also help both entities in future. To see that, we should relax our assumption that factions in South African politics are confined to a single political party. A Zuma’s ANC/EFF coalition presents itself as a trans-party faction, in which what individuals have in common is not their party’s and voters’ best interests, but a mutual goal of shared access to state resources.
That commonality even makes the EFF a trustworthy coalition partner for state capturers. Malema is unlikely to betray the Zuma ANC faction, as he did the Democratic Alliance in the Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane metros, because he shares their interests.
That result generates some worrying possibilities. Principally, urban civil society loses its long-held comfort blanket that Ramaphosa might have enough authority to deal with state capturers if he gets strong public support in the 2019 election. Ramaphosa could instead be weaker then, because the EFF, if it gains more votes at the expense of the ANC as a whole, could strengthen the Zuma/EFF faction.
Instead of the Zuma faction attempting to recall Ramaphosa through the national executive committee, which it hasn’t been strong enough to do yet, the EFF could initiate a vote of no confidence in Parliament, and the Zuma/EFF faction could break party ranks to remove Ramaphosa that way.
This is just a possibility, not a reason to panic. A successful vote of no confidence would require more than 50% of Parliament to agree. If the EFF provides 11%, Zuma’s ANC faction needs to supply 39.1%. Are there that many Zuma supporters in Parliament? Nobody knows. But, bear in mind that Ramaphosa’s efforts in 2017 went into building support among ANC members, whereas Parliament is still mainly the composition of a decade of Zuma’s cadre deployment. We can expect strong support for the Zuma faction in Parliament.
On the EFF side, such a possibility also fits the evidence. Notable here is the recent tendency by the EFF to single out core members in Ramaphosa’s team and pressure them to quit, in conjunction with Zuma-faction resources such as Zuma-appointed public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane.
The obvious example of this “double-teaming” is Gordhan. Floyd Shivambu resurrected (and cut and pasted) allegations from the 2016 Sars “rogue unit” attempt to discredit Gordhan, and the EFF in tandem “reported” Gordhan to Mkhwebane, who at the same time publicly subpoenaed Gordhan on the (untrue) grounds that he failed to respond to letters about the Sars unit.
But further examples of singling out allies have also occurred, such as in Nhlanhla Nene’s case, in which the EFF’s pressure contributed to the then finance minister’s resignation, in a blow to the Ramaphosa faction.
A third, perhaps surprising, example is Malusi Gigaba. Squeaky clean he isn’t, but the evidence indicates he’d shifted to Ramaphosa’s team. Mkhwebane issued a hasty declaration that Gigaba should be fired as home affairs minister after a court judged he had lied under oath. Tellingly, Gigaba was forced to step down because a meeting of the ANC top six decided he should go, not Ramaphosa.
All the evidence points to a co-ordinated campaign to single out, one by one, Ramaphosa supporters, using a combination of EFF pressure and ANC-captured entities, to remove them from Parliament.
That being so, the Zuma faction’s resistance to supposed “purges” by Ramaphosa also makes sense, since it keeps their numbers strong in government. If so, their strategy is no longer just a “protect one to protect all” way to delay defeat, but has morphed into a trans-factional state capturer’s hope of victory.
Such rigorous planning shouldn’t be surprising — Zuma-faction strategising to win the 2017 ANC elections began in at least 2015, so we can expect planning for the 2019 national elections to be under way. In that light, if the EFF continues unchecked, and enough Ramaphosa supporters are squeezed out so the Zuma/EFF faction hits their target number of supporters, the 2019 election would largely become irrelevant.
It would make no difference how urban civil society votes if a trans-party faction has spread factional power across party borders. And thereafter, whatever the election results, Ramaphosa would fall to a no-confidence vote.
What to do? A first action point is to become suspicious of campaigns that single out individuals for blame. This might mean letting go of some idealism, to support some in government who have a compromised past (such as Gigaba).
Second, we should avoid accepting EFF/Zuma faction claims at face value. They share a modus operandi of saying one thing and meaning another, and if civil society keeps galloping down every path they point us down, to say “Yes, you met Atul Gupta on date X, out with you!”, we’ll feel self-righteous until the day capturers take the government back. Let’s realise instead that we’re being played and refrain from action.
A third precaution is to nullify state capturers in government sooner rather than later. When one has a cancer, one doesn’t wait to make sure it gets punished, one gets it out of the body.
In support of those points, I’ve suggested a state capture amnesty, which might allow South Africa to reboot and start thinking about fixing our situation instead of distracting us with backward-looking recrimination while only the state capturers plan ahead.
One thing is clear: there’s work to be done soon because, come the 2019 elections, it might be too late.
Dino Galetti, most recently a post-doctoral researcher at Yale, was creative director at an Irish ad agency, and senior writer and a strategist for the Democratic Party in 1994