/ 12 May 2024

The ‘doomsday’ dilemma: ANC, EFF and MK in pre-election spotlight

Doomsday, John McCann

Less than a month before the elections, the ANC, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and newly formed uMkhonto weSizwe party (MK) are often mentioned in the same breath in online news. 

The Democratic Alliance (DA) is only too happy to reinforce this trend, having coined the phrase “doomsday coalition” to describe these three parties. Is there anything to these baleful warnings, or is it all smoke and mirrors in the campaign circus?

My database of 313 top online news articles from last month in IOL, News24 and TimesLive is no electoral crystal ball. Still, it does reveal fascinating and potentially unsettling insights about how parties are positioned ahead of possibly the most critical polls since 1994. 

The first thing that stands out is the amount of media attention given to different parties. 

Predictably, “ANC” tops the list, with 477 mentions in the 313 articles. The MK party, already looking like a surprise package in these elections, is second: there were 211 mentions of “MK” and 62 mentions of “MKP”, adding up to 277.

Outsize media attention has gone to sussing out this controversial new kid on the block, its court battles and its rapid firing and hiring of leaders. 

“DA” has 194 mentions. Meanwhile, the attention on the MK party seems to have overshadowed the EFF, which received only 66 mentions. 

The single word most associated with “ANC” in last month’s news was “EFF”. The two parties’ names appeared together 24 times in the database. Of these, the MK party is mentioned together with the other two parties seven times. 

Who is responsible for this? DA leader John Steenhuisen, who takes every opportunity he can get to warn about what might happen if the three parties band together in a coalition. 

Steenhuisen is using a well-established technique that is easy to describe using constellation analysis, a set of tools I use constantly. 

He groups his most significant opponents into a constellation of ideas and throws negative judgments at them. That is no criticism of him — every politician does that. 

But the extent to which the ANC, EFF and MK have been grouped together in the mainstream news media shows the staggering success of his strategy.

Reinforcing this effect, “EFF” is strongly associated with “MK” in the news, and vice versa. 

Although Steenhuisen is responsible for five out of 11 instances in which these parties were mentioned together, Malema has also publicly “alluded that his party could work with” the MK party after the elections.

The second-strongest association with the ANC in last month’s news is the word “member”, which is used frequently to refer to the question of Jacob Zuma’s party membership. 

Secretary general Fikile Mbalula declared that “he is no longer a member.” This didn’t stop the ANC from calling him to a disciplinary hearing for campaigning for the MK Party and then putting it off until after the elections, purportedly to avert violence.

Third, the word “vote” is strongly associated with the ruling party as it campaigns desperately to avoid losing its majority for the first time.

The MK party has served up plenty of intrigue ahead of the election. Unsurprisingly, the strongest association with its name is “Jacob Zuma”, often appearing in the phrase “Jacob Zuma’s MK party”. However, the second-strongest association with the MK party, the word “leader”, tells of internecine conflict.

Apart from Zuma, three men are mentioned as leaders in the MK. These include Bonginkosi Khanyile, who was accused of provoking the July 2021 riots, and Visvin Reddy, who was charged with calling for violence if the courts and the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) ruled against the party. 

Khanyile was axed as MK’s youth leader for unclear reasons. Reddy has retained his role in the party.

The other man mentioned as a leader in the MK party, Jabulani Khumalo, is fighting with Zuma for control of the party. 

Khumalo registered the party, but on 23 April, Zuma told him he was replacing him as party president. In return, Khumalo suspended Zuma from the party and asked the IEC to remove him from its list. Political analysts doubt the divisions will dent the MK’s burgeoning support.

When it comes to the DA, Steenhuisen’s name is the most strongly associated with the party in last month’s news. 

While “leader” is also strongly associated with “DA”, he is the only one referred to using that label in the news articles. 

The words describing Steenhuisen’s talk in the news are noteworthy. Steenhuisen “lambasted newer parties that have declined the offer to join the multiparty charter [for South Africa], calling them dishonest and selfish”. He “upped the ante against his opponents” after Rise Mzansi’s Songezo Zibi accused him of using “swart gevaar” tactics in his campaigning. 

This, compounded by the latest controversy over a DA campaign advert in which a South African flag is burned, entrenches stereotypes of the party’s rhetoric as combative, stretching back to its “Fight Back” campaign slogan from 1999.

The impression is only strengthened when you consider “wants”, the word with the next most robust association with the DA. The things the DA wants may be reasonable, such as a new speaker of the National Assembly to replace the disgraced Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula until the election. 

However, the repetition of the phrase “the DA wants…” in the news reinforces their reputation as a strident, demanding voice in South African politics.

The name most strongly associated with the EFF has unsurprisingly been Malema. Apart from hinting at collaboration with the MK party, he was seen hugging Ramaphosa at Moria on Easter Sunday on a visit to the Zion Christian Church. 

The word “MP” also showed a strong association with the EFF, mainly due to mentions of former public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, now an EFF MP. 

Mkhwebane recently argued in court she is entitled to a R10 million gratuity from the public protector’s office, despite leaving the office in what the current public protector Kholeka Gcaleka calls “financial wreckage”, thanks to spending on her legal battles in office.

A third strong association with the EFF’s name is “doomsday”, yet more evidence of the effects of Steenhuisen’s rhetoric. He has not only succeeded in tethering the ANC, EFF and MK together but has fashioned them into a noticeable icon: “the ANC/EFF/MK Doomsday grouping”.

For all that, others say the “doomsday coalition” is becoming less likely. If the ANC manages to get between 45% and 50%, it can patch together a coalition with smaller parties, leaving us with something like our pretty broken status quo. 

If push comes to shove, Steenhuisen has said the DA will consider a coalition with the ANC to keep out the EFF

In March, the Bank of America considered an ANC-DA coalition more likely than an ANC-EFF one. After all, if “doomsday” happens, it will be because the DA let it happen.

So what’s a voter to do? It seems it’s time for us to vote tactically, be pragmatic and pray our politicians will follow suit in the coalition negotiations.

Ian Siebörger is a senior lecturer in the department of linguistics and applied language studies in the faculty of humanities at Rhodes University.