By Gareth van Onselen, 31 October 2013, 05:35
THIS year has seen the launch of two new political parties in South Africa — the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), lead by Julius Malema, and Agang SA, lead by Mamphela Ramphele. They are diametrically opposite in almost every regard and yet the latter has faded into obscurity while the former has successfully tapped into a small but relatively significant market. Why is this? And what does the success of the one and failure of the other say about South Africa’s undecided voters?
In order to arrive at a conclusion, there follows a series of important categories, in which these differences and contradictions become more apparent.
Agang has gone out of its way not to advocate any specific ideology. It has tried to frame itself as a party of the constitution (a crowded market already) and refuses to advocate any overarching moral philosophy. Policy director Mills Soko has said their policy “is not about ideology” and “not about doctrine”, rather, about “putting in place policy that works”. In other words, it has tried to be something for everyone.
In contrast, the EFF has unambiguously identified itself as a radical, revolutionary and socialist movement. Whatever one makes of that, it has a crystal-clear idea of what it stands for. It is something particular for a very specific type of person.
Agang has produced a range of half-baked policy proposals that essentially boil down to a collection of bullet points (a) in no way significantly different from those of the Democratic Alliance (DA) and (b) too superficial and generic to have made any real impact.
The EFF, pressed for time much like Agang, has produced an equally shallow set of policies but they are uniquely populist and radically socialist in nature. As such, they have captured the public imagination, for good or for bad. The result is, they have got people talking — the expropriation of South Africa’s land “without compensation for equal redistribution”; the nationalisation of “mines, banks, and other strategic sectors of the economy”, and so on.
The EFF has capitalised on socialist red, tapping into a market already well defined by the South African Communist Party and that enjoys a long historic tradition. Easily identifiable, accompanied by berets and all, the SACP is in a fight to reclaim the colour. It is powerful, increasingly identified with the EFF and emotive.
It is hard to say exactly what Agang’s brand is. There is the name, some yellow and a range of other colours that suggest no coherent corporate image; at least not one properly marketed or readily identifiable. Say “Agang” and next to no visual imagery associated with the party name or brand will come to mind.
Dr Mamphela Ramphele is at heart an academic. Erudite (perhaps too much so), an articulate speaker and published author, she comes from a universe of abstract ideas. Her communication reflects this. She talks of democracy and good governance and constitutionalism but often fails to turn these things into concrete examples to which people can relate.
Malema, by contrast, is a demagogue. A man who infamously failed woodwork, he is able to use current events to advocate (equally vague) socialist rhetoric. But by constantly grounding his words in current affairs, he operates almost exclusively in the here and now. As such he is much more able to brand himself as a “man of the people”, than Ramphele is able to escape the idea she is detached and remote.
Their respective launches aside, the EFF, driven by radicalism and vitriolic rhetoric — and with those things fear and intimidation — has enjoyed a media profile disproportionate to the party’s actual weight. Indeed, there is a case to be made that this approach is largely responsible for the reputation Malema was able to establish the EFF on in the first place.
Ramphele has had one significant media flurry, when she declared her financial interests, but other than that is largely absent from the national debate, is unexceptional, uninteresting, generic and detached.
Both parties claim to be going after disillusioned voters: Agang, those too sick and tired of South African politics to vote at all, the EFF those “true revolutionaries” fed up with Jacob Zuma and the ANC’s decline. But of those two markets, Malema’s is the more available. Apathy is doubly hard to overcome — one must not only convince some to vote, but to vote for your particular party. Resentment and anger are far more easily mobilised. So whereas Ramphele has tried to produce reason, Malema has generated and fuelled raw emotion. In South Africa, the latter usually triumphs over the former.
Ramphele is flush with money. A millionaire several times over, she has been able to call on a wide range of donors locally and internationally to fund her party. Malema, bankrupt and on trial, has been forced to sleep at the home of friends. Yet where Agang has been forced to create structures and administration by buying them, Malema inherited an informal political network from his days as ANC Youth Leader. With that, almost overnight he was able to set up a national organisation. And, with far less respect for internal democracy than, say, the Congress of the People, to appoint people to key positions. Democracy is a slow and painful business. Authoritarianism might be much scarier, but it certainly is much more efficient.
Agang entered the political market entirely on the back of Ramphele’s personal reputation. It was a massively egotistical move, for once, exactly akin to Malema’s own self-serving motivation. However, the mistake Ramphele made was assuming her personal narrative resonated enough with potential voters to convince them to follow her. It was a guess.
Malema, by contrast, had a very clear idea of the gap in the market that existed for his brand of populism. Indeed, he had already successfully mobilised it as ANC Youth League leader. It was tried and tested. All he did, effectively, was change the name of the organisation he represented and, with that, remove any constraints the ANC constitution had placed upon him. The EFF is merely the natural and entirely authentic extension of Malema’s true self. It requires no explanation, no fundamental ideological shift (from say black consciousness to constitutionalism) and no ambiguity.
It says much South Africa’s current condition, and its socioeconomic context, that two such diametrically opposed political parties can launch at the same time, with roughly the same agenda — capitalising on ANC discontent — and suffer such different fates. More still that the one, led by a revered, considered, rich, respected academic, should be the party to suffer no real support or impact, while the other, led by a bankrupt, radical, disgraced, demonised populist, should be able so effectively to tap into a market.
One must keep some perspective when gauging the success or failure of both. Each is dabbling in the shallow end of the pool and is unlikely to make any significant impact when it comes to the actual percentage of the vote they secure in 2014. But of this you can be sure: the EFF will outperform Agang.
It is true their markets are not identical and, in that sense, a comparison is slightly disingenuous. In turn, whereas Agang is competing largely with the DA, and the EFF largely with the ANC, it is the ANC’s core constituency that is fractured and divided and the DA’s that remains fairly unified. However, it does tell you one thing: if you want to start a political party in South Africa, don’t bother looking in the Democracy 101 handbook. It means next to nothing.
Malema’s great strengths might be Ramphele’s great weaknesses — and vice versa — but many undecided South African voters have a far greater appetite for demagoguery than they do democracy and, if you want to succeed, that would seem like a good place to start.