Hyping Up the EFF's Performance at the Polls

By Steven Friedman · 13 May 2014

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Picture: Leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema, courtesy EFF Supporter Website
Picture: Leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema, courtesy EFF Supporter Website

If the social justice agenda here depends on inflating the popular support and the commitment to equality of a loud group of racial nationalists, it is in more trouble than we thought.

The nationalists are the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), whose 6, 35% of the vote has been hailed by the media, commentators and voices on the left. If we look at the numbers, it is hard to see why the EFF should deserve this hero-worship. If we look beyond them, we will find the reaction to Julius Malema’s party more interesting than the EFF itself.

The EFF received 14% less votes than the Congress of the People’s 7, 42% in 2009. It won almost 150 000 votes less than COPE did then even though more people voted this time. Then the mainstream debate, which repeatedly hypes up ANC breakaways, found COPE’s performance disappointing. Now, a poorer performance has been hailed as a triumph.

Since the election, the EFF and its supporters among the commentariat have reacted indignantly to the COPE analogy. They claim that COPE had resources which the EFF lacked – one of its leaders was a Cabinet minister, it took with it ANC branches and had lots of money.

But the EFF had, if anything, more reason than COPE to do well. COPE was formed only months before the election. It chose as its Presidential candidate Bishop Mvume Dandala, who had never been an ANC politician – since it was appealing to ANC voters, this was a huge blunder. The EFF had much more time to prepare – its ‘commander in chief’, Malema, may not have been a minister but is better known than COPE’s Mosiuoa Lekota. EFF enjoyed almost unlimited media coverage, all of which portrayed it as it wanted to be seen, as a radical party with a mass following among the poor. While social media still reach probably no more than one in ten South Africans, Twitter and Facebook enabled it to reach connected young middle-class voters, an asset COPE did not enjoy. Like COPE, EFF could rely on existing ANC structures and so had ready-made networks it could use to reach voters.

All this means that the EFF should have done at least as well as COPE. That it did not, shows that its popularity has been greatly exaggerated.

The EFF did not present itself, nor did commentators and reporters present it, as just another party seeking a toehold in parliament, it presented itself, and was portrayed, as the voice of all who felt betrayed by two decades of democracy. Its repeated claims that it would win a majority were not simply routine boasts. It portrayed itself as the voice of the poor and dispossessed. Since they are a majority, a party, which speaks for them, would be assured victory. Journalists and commentators repeatedly portrayed the EFF as the nemesis of the social pact of 1994, the voice of all whose material needs have not been met by the constitutional order.

That this history-changing movement turns out to enjoy the support of only one in sixteen voters - if we take into account how many people register, one in twenty voting age citizens - shows how great a delusion the notion of EFF as a history-changing mass movement was.

The delusion is further illustrated by the fact that analysts such as this one, who argued before the election that the EFF would not achieve COPE’s share of the vote, were insulted and abused, accused of being blinded by our prejudices. Now the outcome we predicted is said to be proof of the EFF’s popular appeal. While Lekota is rightly derided by the media for predicting that his party would receive 20% when it achieved less than one, Malema is hailed despite predicting that the EFF would win over 50%.

Of the votes it did receive, 40% came from relatively affluent Gauteng. It also may be no coincidence that EFF’s vote is about half the 10% or so who use social media. It remains likely that EFF voters were, in the main, not the poor and marginalised but the middle class and the connected.

But why then has it been portrayed as so popular a force?

First, it inspires some of the middle class’s deepest fears. Central to the South African story is a myth once embraced almost exclusively by whites but which has become embedded in the worldview of much of the middle class. It sees the poor as irrational barbarians, prey to the promises of any demagogue. And so any populist who seems to be urging the black poor to rise up and seize the wealth of the affluent is assumed to enjoy mass support. This explains why Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was assumed to be an icon of the poor and why Malema and the EFF have taken over this mantle.

This fantasy ignores overwhelming evidence that living in poverty is no bar to rational thought and that poor people are perfectly capable of knowing who represents their interests and who does not. Since most know that the EFF leadership is far more familiar with the world of the rising middle class than that which they endure, they have no reason to support it. Since many poor people in Malema’s home province, Limpopo, also associate him with using public resources in ways, which do not assist the poor, it is no surprise that nine in ten voters there rejected the EFF.

The second reason is wishful thinking among those who are so eager for social and economic change that they latch onto implausible signs that it is happening. The EFF may sound radical but its chief message is racial nationalism, not social justice. It is led not by a leader elected by its members but by an anointed commander-in-chief. It reacts to most issues with threats that it will use not political action but force. Those on the left who have embraced the EFF have disregarded the difference between a movement for social equality and a nationalist populism with strong militarist undertones. A middle-class movement concerned not at inequality but at the race of those who benefit from it becomes a radical justice movement with deep roots among the poor.

The EFF is not the people’s movement that will challenge the post-1994 era’s skewed distribution of power and privilege: that is yet to emerge. It is, rather, a trigger to the mainstream prejudices and left-wing delusions, which obstruct an effective challenge to social injustices.

**N.B. This article was amended on 14 May 2014 at 15h41. It had previously stated, "Since many poor people in Malema’s home province, Limpopo, also associate him with using public resources in ways, which do not assist the poor, it is no surprise that one in ten voters there rejected the EFF." The amended version now reads, "…nine in ten voters there rejected the EFF."

Friedman is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg.

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13 May

Welcome Dose of Reality

Prof Friedman is always such a breath of fresh air. He keeps his head and is always so rational.

The media coverage of the EFF, especially in the City Press, has been very silly. Reading the papers you get the impression that it rivals the ANC in terms of its support and that all the poor are behind it.

I think that Friedman is right. Malema, like Winnie before before him, gets all this media attention because they evoke the fear of the middle classes.

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13 May

The Left

The left is general is not democratic in South Africa. The Democratic Left Front also saw no need to elect its leaders. The EFF is not a unique case.

It's very depressing really.

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Vashna Jagarnath
13 May

Just Brilliant

Prof. Friedman is always right on - if only more political analysts took reality seriously and were not swayed by political dogma or social media.

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Mark Whelan
13 May

The Dangers and Delusions of the Radical Right

I am in full agreement with Professor Freidman's analysis. And while it substantiates my personal belief that Malema and the EFF are a dangerous movement, particularly when seen in light of the middle class support it enjoys, Professor Friedman doesn't talk enough about the existing plutocratic regime of Jacob Zuma and the ANC. By gaining yet another mandate of trust to deliver in the interest of the majority, I am not convinced that the ANC is a movement about to reform from within, even with the remote possibility of recalling Zuma. If I am wrong, I, for one, will be pleasantly surprised.

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13 May

Urban but not Necessarily Nationalist

I'm not so sure where the 'nationalist' label comes from, but yes contrary to their rhetoric the EF's support is strongest in upwardly mobile urban areas such as Sunnyside in Pretoria. These aren't really middle class voters but certainly not poor either. I find it encouraging that many young working people are willing to identify with a party that at least pretends to be left-leaning.

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16 May


Martin, read Prof Duncan's brilliant critique of how the EFF repeats colonial era stereotypes about Indians. This is nationalism, as crude as it gets. In fact its chauvinism.

David 7
14 May

Hyping up EFF

EFF enjoyed a lot of hype and it will, quote "it is no surprise that one in ten voters there rejected the EFF", if you do not amend that to NINE in TEN voters in Limpopo rejected...

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Rory Verified user
16 May

The real party of the left?

I found Steven's analysis of the EFF and its electoral support very enlightening. What he is saying is that in his view the real party on the left of the ANC has not yet materialised. I hope he is correct. What is clear to me is that the element of our society which coalesced around the anti-Apartheid struggle needs to re-emerge and resume the struggle this time around on the issue of social justice

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