By this time next week, the election dust will have settled. One doesn’t have to be clairvoyant or even wait for the results, to discern the shape of the future.

Everything will be the same. Nothing will be the same. The ANC will again form the government and the DA will again form the official opposition. And barring the unlikely scenarios of the ANC dipping below 50% or the DA failing to reach 20%, they will both have good reason to feel vindicated.

ANC strategists will celebrate the resilience of the liberation dividend, given a hellish half-dozen years of internal ructions, a flagging economy, uninspiring leadership and an endless procession of corruption scandals. The DA, in turn, will celebrate emphasising emphatically the truth of its official opposition title, by growing its vote by 50% over five years to win the support of almost one in four voters, something only possible with increased black backing.

Congress of the People (Cope) and Agang — both born out of a disillusionment with the ANC coupled with an antipathy towards the DA — will draw such meagre percentages that they will be left with no meaningful role. Except, of course, as tempting morsels for the big two parties to cannibalise, much as the Inkatha Freedom Party has been the ANC’s very own Gingerbread Man for 20 years, to nibble away a limb at a time.

This fading into insignificance of Cope and Agang are almost criminal failures. These two had in their grasp for a golden moment the potential to crowbar open South Africa’s race-dominated political logjam.

Agang was inadvertently killed off over the course of a week by its egotistical creator, Mamphela Ramphele. She was aided in this act of infanticide by DA leader Helen Zille, who proved to be a startlingly inept political midwife.

In contrast, weighing in with a respectable 7.4% of the vote just months after birth, Cope was starved to death over the course of six long years. It, too, is the victim of egotism, this time of South Africa’s very own Tweedledum and Tweedledummer – co-founders Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa.

So when one boils it all down, there’s only one significant wildcard in Wednesday’s election: the Economic Freedom Fighters under former ANC enfant terrible, Julius Malema. If the EFF gets more than 10% of the vote, it’s potentially a game changer for South Africa.

It means that populist politics, à la Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe, are firmly on the menu, with the gravy boat centrepiece comprising the usual rancid sauce dished up by neo-fascist movements: nationalism, xenophobia, racial scapegoating, and an increasingly confiscatory and violent anti-constitutionalism. While the silly berets and the grandiose self-awarded military titles are comical, the rhetoric is scary.

During this campaign Malema provocatively stated twice that the EFF would ‘destroy physically’ Gauteng’s hated e-tolls. ‘So arrest us!’ he told his cheering supporters.

The Independent Electoral Commission and the South African Police Service pretended, or were instructed, not to notice this incitement. Shamefully, the normally voluble Out, the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance, was also tjoepstil. While Outa marshals every constitutional nuance in its endless court actions against tolls, violent and anti-constitutional rhetoric apparently don’t faze it, as long as any violence would benefit its agenda.

A double-figure share of the vote for the EFF means not only less investment, internal and foreign, but also the start of capital outflows. It has the potential to trigger a downward spiral that would destroy South Africa as a democratic, constitutional state.

The threat lies not simply in the EFF’s racist bile but how achieving an impressive share of the vote after such a brief existence will change political dynamics. Nothing will be the same for other parties, especially for the ANC.

At a stroke it will shift the political centre way to the left, depriving the ANC of space for gradualism. It will leave a panicked ANC – forget about its apparently impregnable parliamentary majority, the ANC knows history better than most – facing two socialist movements that originated from within its ranks: a democratic socialist front made up of disenchanted unionists and a black nationalist socialist party made up of the firebrands it expelled.

On the other hand, if the EFF is kept pegged back to 5%, despite the indulgently benign press coverage it has had, there is breathing space still for normal processes of political realignment to take place. It will still unsettle the ANC, which is terrified of being outflanked by populists. However, it might just galvanise the government to actually implement centrist growth policies, like the National Development Plan.

Election 2014. Isn’t it great? In SA even the predictable is exciting.

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William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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