Will the real opposition please stand up?


Has the EFF stolen the DA’s thunder in Parliament, even to the point where it is increasingly being seen as the ‘real’ opposition? We asked a few political experts for their verdicts.

Bluster, bravado and swagger can make for pretty good entertainment—especially when it happens within the normally hallowed halls of Parliament. But it does zilch for the enhancement of democracy.

This appears to be the view of most political commentators following the EFF’s rambunctious performance in Parliament since its arrival on the scene a mere few months ago. About the only thing it’s lacked is a good old-fashioned chair fight. Watch this space…

Parodied, caricatured and widely maligned, Julius Malema is a political pugilist who couldn’t give the proverbial continental about the Queensberry Rules. But when it comes to grabbing the limelight, he is a master.

In contrast, DA leader Mmusi Maimane is the archetypal nice guy—brainy rather than brawny, subtle rather than supercilious.

In a recent column, former DA communications man, and now respected journalist and commentator Gareth van Onselen posed the question by what measure Maimane was actually the leader. “In other words, to what extent does he lead the opposition? Does he set the oppositional agenda in Parliament? Is he the most forceful leader in the House? The most charismatic? Do his words command attention and his actions necessitate change?”

The answer to all these questions, he said, was “a resounding ‘no’. The person who has really set the agenda in the National Assembly in this way is the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Julius Malema”.

This, Van Onselen added, was not a comment on the nature of the message the EFF wished to deliver to South Africa, nor the strategy and tactics it uses to do so. “It is exclusively a comment about impact. Love him or hate him, Malema has, by some distance, defined the discussion emanating from our fifth democratic Parliament. And, never mind the opposition, one could go so far as to say he has forced even the ANC to respond and behave on his terms.
“Julius Malema is the real leader of the opposition in Parliament. Maimane has a problem: he lacks the necessary gravitas. He is, as they say, ‘a nice guy’. And we all know where they finish”.

Advocate Johan Kruger, Director of the Centre for Constitutional Rights at the FW de Klerk Foundation, agrees that the EFF has been stealing everyone’s thunder—not only the DA’s—and says Malema understands the ANC’s strategies and tactics and knows how to push its buttons.

“He also seems to have a personal score to settle, which makes his attacks on the ANC focused and nuanced. Hence, apart from the policy matters which formed the basis of their election manifesto, it is rather evident that one of the EFF’s primary objectives is to get rid of President Zuma and his confidants, thus making the EFF a headline hit with the media. However, whether the EFF is just a passing thunderstorm or a precursor to monsoon rains remains to be seen”.

Kruger says due to South Africa’s “unfortunate and continuous race-based politics (quite often perpetuated by the ANC when convenient to do so), the EFF has been in the advantageous position of raising substantive and often thorny issues without the ANC being able to accuse them of being racist—often the easy way out when dealing with the DA”.

As such, he says, the EFF has been able to insist on responses from the ANC—especially on politically sensitive matters such as the Nkandla debacle—but also matters such as the functioning and performance of Parliament.
Kruger says the EFF is, however, yet to prove its worth in the National Assembly and its committees—by adding substantive value to all policy and legislative discussions, and not only sensational, headline-grabbing topics. “They are not quite the ‘real’ opposition, but most definitely an uncomfortable breath of fresh air in Parliament.”

The EFF’s apparent disregard for parliamentary customs and traditions, he says, has other political parties hot under the collar, while commentators stand divided on whether to support or condemn their unruly behaviour. From their dress code in the House, to dressing down the president and the Speaker, members of the EFF have been challenging the status quo in Parliament from day one. Kruger says even though one may not agree with their policies or tack, they may indeed have a point about Parliament and its constitutional obligations.

Maimane, says Kruger, is finding his feet in Parliament. “He has quite a different style compared to other party leaders, but has already started showing his knack for strategic footwork and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring in Parliament. It may be the gregarious leaders grabbing the headlines, but more often than not, skilful and quiet positioning is the making of real success. Give him some time.”

South Africans, he says, can certainly expect more thunder and lightning from the EFF in Parliament. “The ANC is not used to being challenged outside their comfort zone—and the EFF knows that. The degree and vigour —or rather the lack thereof—with which the National Assembly and its committees have been engaging in debate and oversight of the executive has predominantly been dictated by the ANC. This has arguably diluted Parliament’s obligation to debate issues of national importance and its duty to ensure proper and effective oversight of the Executive. As such, real debate has been stifled and effective oversight limited to lip service in favour of protocol
and procedure”.

Unlike other opposition parties, he says, the EFF will continue challenging the ANC, in a manner that will make the ruling party really uncomfortable. “Nonetheless, as long as the debates remain in Parliament, and about Parliament, our democracy remains safe. It is when Parliament loses credibility and the people start walking away from Parliament that our democracy needs to be looking for higher ground.”

Anthea Jeffery, Head of policy research at the Institute of Race Relations, says to see the EFF as the ‘real’ opposition is a narrow view, based largely on the party’s successes in capturing newspaper headlines through its flair for political theatre.

Parliamentary opposition requires much more than grandstanding before the media—including the capacity to frame convincing policy alternatives,” says Jeffrey. “It also means using Parliament to hold the executive to account, as the Constitution requires. The DA has battled to achieve this, but this is largely because of the ANC’s long-standing disdain for Parliament and its conventions. The EFF has done no better in holding the president to account—and for the same reason.”

The EFF, she says, is more of a danger than an addition to South Africa’s democracy. “It has won public sympathy through its demand that President Jacob Zuma ‘pay back the money’ spent on his private home at Nkandla, but it also now poses a further threat to the functioning of Parliament. It will not help to strengthen the legislature or consolidate democracy if the ANC’s disdain for parliamentary rules is compounded by the EFF’s contempt for them.”

It is difficult to assess, adds Jeffrey, what kind of showing Maimane has made as the DA’s Parliamentary leader as media coverage has focused far more on the political theatre proffered by Malema.

She believes the EFF is unlikely to change its tactics, which have worked well in keeping the party in the media spotlight. This could further diminish the capacity of Parliament to craft sound legislation and hold the executive to account. The status of the legislature had already been badly eroded, and the EFF’s tactics seemed likely to continue this process.

“However, it is more difficult to assess what role the EFF will play in Parliament’s many portfolio committees, which operate largely behind the scenes in drafting legislation. There is less opportunity for grandstanding in these committees, which may encourage greater EFF participation in their deliberations.

However, the more the EFF succeeds in pushing policies in the statist direction it seeks, the more this will further weaken our democracy. EFF policies of nationalisation, expropriation and state-led industrialisation are sure to erode economic growth and worsen unemployment. They will also expand the power of the state and increase dependency upon it, so undermining the individual autonomy vital to a free society.”

DA leader Helen Zille has also expressed her views on the DA versus EFF debate. “Our real challenge is to improve the institutions of governance, entrench their independence and improve their accountability,” she says. “Achieving this is much more difficult than periodic outpourings of impotent rage.”

Disruptive actions, Zille wrote recently, “will get you into the news, but they seldom get you the outcome you want, unless you are the type of politician who believes that building a support base is an end in itself, rather than a means to the important end of better governance.”

These thoughts, she wrote, “crossed my mind as I watched the EFF disrupt Parliament with their chants of ‘Pay back the money’, to demonstrate that they were not prepared to tolerate Jacob Zuma’s obfuscation on Nkandla for another minute.

“Sharing their frustration, the response was a chorus of cheers from across the political spectrum, including the 62% of voters who had sidestepped their own responsibility for holding the president accountable through the ballot box on 7 May.

“But the risk to the future of South Africa was also crystal clear in that moment. Showing contempt for Parliament in different ways, both Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema demonstrated their disdain for the institutions of
our democracy.”

There was a critical lesson in this, said Zille. “The undermining of effective, independent institutions (like Parliament, the Judiciary, the Police, the Public Prosecutor and the Press) is the real reason why transitions from authoritarian rule to democracy on our continent rarely succeed at the first attempt.

“Big men emerge (ironically often through democratic elections), who then consider themselves above the institutions that exist to hold them accountable. Indeed, the typical ‘big man’ politician quickly moves to ‘capture’ both public and private institutions, using them as instruments of power abuse to persecute his opponents and protect himself”.

She said if people wanted democracy to work in South Africa at our first attempt, “we need to build and protect ‘big independent institutions’ before they are destroyed by ‘big men’ like Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema. These one-time bosom buddies may now be mortal enemies, but they are still two sides of the same coin.”

Professor Clive Napier, President of the South African Association of Political Studies at the University of South Africa, said the EFF had recently stolen some of the DA’s thunder in Parliament through its vocal response to the Nkandla issue by testing the rules of Parliament and thereby catching the attention of the media.

“Although less than a third of the size of the DA, and a new party, it thrust itself into the public conscience. There is much more to Parliament than grandstanding and the emotive language which the EFF has used effectively. The EFF has undoubtedly again elevated the Nkandla and the Marikana issues to public prominence. These issues have been an embarrassment to the ANC in the past and further tilted public opinion against the ANC.”

Napier said it was indeed a function of an opposition party to highlight the failings of a governing party and government. For many, the activities of the EFF were an entertaining sideshow, “but there is a serious side to their parliamentary language—the misuse of public resources, which resonates with many sections of the public and even some within the ANC itself.”

Maimane, he said, was a person of considerable talent who had experience in politics at local government level.
“Certainly, Musi Maimane has recently been overshadowed by the EFF in the media. (But) there is much more to Parliament than the issues on which the EFF has focused. Parliament is a maze of rules which need to be mastered and used to maximum effect, such as ‘points of order’ on which the EFF has focused.

Moreover, much work is done in Parliament in the committees and plenary sessions where Maimane and the DA can make their mark through the use of their research capacity, institutional memory and experience of many of its members. Much of the work done by the DA is done at the provincial and local level where its representatives pursue issues close to local communities.

“Maimane is young, energetic and astute. The ANC is unlikely to get the better of him.”

The EFF, Napier added, was dependent upon its support of workers, the youth and the unemployed. “It needs to play to this possible support base to grow and will do this through its radical policy proposals and provocative language.

”On the other hand, the governing party will attempt to wear it down through the strict application of parliamentary rules and the pursuit of legal action against Malema for tax evasion and irregular business dealings.”

The emergence of the EFF on the political scene, said Napier, “can be seen as good for democracy. The EFF has already eroded part of the support base of the ANC as a dominant party.”

He believed the EFF could well break apart in years to come as a result of internal factionalism and the lack of well-established party structures to deal with personality differences and factionalism. This, in turn, could result in new
party alignments.

The DA, by contrast, was likely to weather any future storms, as it has grassroots structures and internal mechanisms to deal with internal conflict and leadership changes. 

David Capel


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