The South African public and media have devoured every scrap thrown to them by Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), with the media churning out tens of stories featuring analysis about the viability of this allegedly radical anti-capitalist protest movement. There’s been a cacophonous frenzy surrounding the launch of Malema’s new venture, and although some may try to escape the discussions and debates, we’re slowly being drawn into the discussion as a nation.
Mostly because we don’t really discuss anything as a nation.
The media’s enthusiastic coverage of EFF is not necessarily indicative of the media feeding Malema’s popularity and status as our country’s finest tjatjarag, but rather the fact that our country has a mutual desire to discuss him. While South African politics and policy-making often seems closed off to the majority of South Africans, new ventures like EFF become hot topics across the country because of the lack of deliberative politics and the barriers to public participation.
South Africans are able to take to their community radio stations and initiate conversation about the desire for a new politics in South Africa — one where citizens are involved and engaged. We’ve seen this every election season: the Copes, IDs and other new political ventures receive massive media attention because they represent something new. And then, ordinary citizens start feeding into this newness, this need for change, and suddenly we have deliberative politics in action — citizens across the racial and class divides all have the same dinner discussion points and this perpetuates the cycle.
Finally, South Africans are talking.
I concede that there are several other factors that have contributed to Cope, Agang SA, and now EFF receiving headline status in the press, but there is also a desire for public participation and deliberation, which fuels the market into providing their consumers with more precious page-space dedicated to the latest political fad.
Unfortunately the collective discussion surrounding these political fads never really translates into tangible results for the fads in question, and this probably speaks to the actual complexity of our political establishment. But these conversations are still more successful in creating critical engagement than the ones we should be having. For example, there’s been very little public engagement with Trevor Manuel’s National Development Plan or the critical failure of the Zuma administration to create jobs and secure economic growth.
Yet, there was a great amount of conversation surrounding the possibility of an economic Codesa last year. An economic Codesa would have allowed for public participation or representation, which does not currently exist in the sphere of economic and fiscal policy-making. The prospect of an economic Codesa would have invited citizens from all cross-sections of society to the table to discuss the possibility of economic empowerment that currently doesn’t exist. Similarly, new political ventures (with even the slightest viability) create a national discussion among voters and analysts about the possibility of political change in a majoritarian system.
There is a great desire for South Africans to be invited to the table so that we can have our turn to eat. South Africans want to be a part of a discussion on their future. In a system where the ruling party remains dominant, people are actively discussing the challenges to power posed by political fads. This is an intrinsically good thing, but the fact that many people latch onto fads or ventures simply because they are new and create the space for discussion, points to the lack of public participation in the mainstream political establishment.
This problem is greatly compounded by ethnic, racial and class divides. South Africans obviously want to have a collective discussion, but do not feel that the current establishment creates a deliberative environment where all feel at home. Groups across the spectrum are more likely to enter into a discussion on the hope (or fear) new political movements create, than to actually attend public meetings when citizens know that public participation in a majoritarian state often amounts to nothing.
John Stuart Mill argued that liberty can be preserved by ensuring individuals have a place in public affairs. Both the ANC and the DA must ensure that they are creating space for communities and individuals to act as responsible citizens. Passivity is clearly represented in the number of people who choose not to vote, but the ANC cannot underestimate these people. They will one day find a pedestal to speak from.
The now predictable attention surrounding new political ventures such as the EFF underscores the desire of South Africans to have a say on policy, the direction of the country and the way politics and the economy works. These conversations may not amount to action on the part of voters or real electoral change, but it certainly indicates a fatal flaw in the way our current political establishment works.
Government is too far removed from the people and unless the ANC maintains some kind of connection to the individuals at the lowest level, more and more people will find a voice in the opposition — established or fad.