The ANC’s response to political newcomers, the EFF, bears an eerie resemblance to the DA’s response to Gareth van Onselen. What this shows is that, irrespective of affiliation, parties have a limited ability to deal with, and respond to, political criticism. This is especially the case when the criticism comes from “one of their own”.
Earlier this year, I wrote an article examining the DA’s handling of the criticism heaped on Mmusi Maimane during the 2014 election campaign. I suggested that the party’s doublespeak was deeply problematic: it indicated a seeming inability to deal with, and respond to, criticism and, possibly, highlighted the party’s double standards on journalistic freedom. This was particularly with reference to Business Day columnist, and former DA employee, Van Onselen.
“What is of particular interest in this situation is the way in which the DA or, rather, elements of it, have reacted to Van Onselen’s searing critiques of Maimane … whether Van Onselen’s damning critique of Maimane is accurate or fair is not my concern. To be frank, I think that Van Onselen’s writing is a touch ungenerous but is impossible to ignore … the DA’s efforts to rebut Van Onselen have made (the DA) come across as shrill and hypersensitive. It is something that … rather than silence the criticism its frenetic response has conversely underscored it. What is peculiar … is … that it should invest so much time to discrediting one of its critics in particular … much is made of Van Onselen’s previous association with the DA. There are assertions of an acrimonious parting of ways … he is now settling scores … in order to seem balanced, he (falsely) turns on the DA to counterbalance his attacks on the ANC. Apart from the fact that the DA has never objected to Van Onselen’s brutal assessments of the ANC – because it suits them not to – the attitude taken by some … is ironic … Helen Zille often says that party loyalty is not for life (but that) some … (it) … of a former staffer suggests … that some within the DA do not believe … or that … do not listen to her. Either way, a dogmatic expectation of loyalty and an inability to deal with criticism – other than to respond in a paranoid and desperate way – reveals more about how … the DA see(s) democracy, and free speech, operating. It’s fine when it’s being used against the other guys just not when we are in the firing line.”
And, despite their attempts to differentiate themselves from each other, the ANC’s response to the EFF bears a striking resemblance to that of the DA’s — over-the-top and counter-productive.
It has, in various ways, compared the EFF to Nazis; supported moves to have them suspended from Parliament; indeed, overstepped the mark to try and secure the place against one of their “protests” and apparently bussed in supporters to threaten them.
This has all highlighted the ANC’s own failings, rather than the EFF’s questionable and deliberately provocative tactics.
On one hand, this strategic faux pas has allowed the EFF to play the victim card and, additionally, capture the public’s imagination: it is the radical party standing up for all of us against the ANC bully-boy. It is the people’s champion. On closer inspection, it is clear that it is far from it. The EFF is a personality project driven by its leader after his falling out with, and expulsion from, the ANC. That it can cloak itself with the greater legitimacy as a people’s champion is only made worse by the ANC’s reaction to it. In rejecting the EFF out-of-hand, it also makes itself seem as if it rejects the concerns which they now, opportunistically, champion.
On the other, the ANC has demonstrated its distinctly authoritarian streak and, in so doing, confirmed the worst characterisations of itself. Not that many people doubt the ANC’s lack of an appetite for criticism – its history is replete with examples of how it has dealt with “the enemy within”. In its exaggerated reaction to the EFF, possibly out of feeling genuinely threatened with respect to its hold on black political support, it has also made more clear just how willing it is to trample on the Constitution to protect itself.
The ANC is normally much cleverer than this. Even though it has lost support to the opposition, its supercilious handling of the DA has meant that, try as the DA may, the ANC has been largely unmoved. But, the EFF is different. It knows how the ANC thinks and acts. It does so, not only because it originates from within the movement but, because it thinks and acts in the same way, too. In being flat-footed by the EFF as it is, the ANC is displaying its more worrying nature. The thing we should all watch is if the facade, it otherwise maintains, slips entirely. If it does, the EFF will not be the biggest losers but we, the people, will be. Any pretence for the respect of the rule of law and constitutionalism will get thrown out with the bathwater, kind of like what is happening at the present with the EFF-baby.