The rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in the May 8, 2019 election, has ushered in the arrival of black leftist populism as a standalone strand, with the strong popular appeal within South African politics.
Populism is generally leaders and parties tailoring their policies to what people want, to get elected, often with very little regard for whether the policies are evidence-based, rational or practical.
In the past, left and right-wing populism within black politics co-existed within the broad church of the ANC. Before the rise of the EFF, left-wing populists in the ANC tripartite alliance were curtailed by communists and socialists in the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), social democratic components at the centre, and conservative African traditionalists on the right flank of the ANC.
African populism, unlike those in industrial or other developing countries which have been associated with the politics of the right, has since the end of formal colonialism been on the left of the political spectrum. Many African liberation movements, especially those on the left, such as Zimbabwe's Zanu-PF, Namibia's Swapo and Algeria's FLN are in fact parties, combining leftist economic policies with conservative Africanist political and social stances.
African countries, with large populations that have suffered from the violence of colonialism and apartheid, and large numbers of illiterate citizens, stripped of their land and property and marginalised from opportunities because of their colour, are rich pickings for post-colonial leftist populism. These African leftist populists promise immediate nirvana (if only the land is returned, the settlers chased away and businesses put into state hands). Not surprisingly, such promises of immediate material change in their circumstances are desperately embraced by those in grinding poverty.
The failure in the government of the ANC under former president Jacob Zuma has led to the rise of left-wing populism within and outside the ANC. The rise of black left-wing populism has caused the rise of white right-wing populism in response, which resulted in the increase in electoral support for the Freedom Front Plus in the 2019 elections.
EFF now the pre-eminent left-wing populist party
The irony is that Zuma came to power in the ANC at the party's 2007 conference on the back of left-wing populism; when he ousted former president Thabo Mbeki as leader of the party. The EFF, formed by former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, has now successfully positioned itself as the pre-eminent black left-wing populist party outside the ANC.
The EFF uses left "struggle" rhetoric, to call for the nationalisation of the Reserve Bank, combined with policies such as the expropriation of land without compensation.
The EFF's success eclipsed older populist liberation movements on the left such as the Pan Africanist Congress, which had combined Africanist policies with leftist populism. The EFF has now also overtaken Black Consciousness style parties, which had combined Africanist type, with socialist and black pride policies.
Ordinary impoverished, illiterate and jobless black South Africans can hardly be expected to see the difference between leftist populism; and more ideologically left positions, such as those of the SACP or Cosatu. Therefore, many would reckon, what's the point of supporting all the other assortment of left groups, if the EFF appears to be so much more electorally dominant.
New black leftist parties, such as the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, the offshoot of the National Union of Metalworkers Union (Numsa), will now find it very difficult to gain mass traction among black voters, as seen in their woeful electoral debut. This means that even if for example the SACP, at some point decides to go on its own, it would unlikely gain popular appeal among the black working class and poor, as the EFF is now seen by many as party of the left.
The EFF has also transformed South Africa's politics in the sense that it is now accepted among the black electorate that there are different ANC traditions the ANC itself - which are also . This means that the ANC cannot use its role as the leading force in the anti-apartheid struggle as the sole basis for people to vote for it.
For another, the black electorate, even the most desperate, have clearly rejected parties centred on one leader such as the African Content Movement (ACM). The problem for new ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa is that the ANC itself is split between a leftist populist wing, represented by Zuma; and Ramaphosa's centre-left alliance of communists, socialists, social democrats, business and trade unions.
The Zuma faction in the ANC has opportunistically positioned themselves as populists on the left to try to undermine Ramaphosa's left centrist business-friendly positions. Some of these policies include the expropriation of land without compensation, nationalisation of the Reserve Bank, and opposition to privatising failing state-owned enterprises and the rightsizing of the bloated public service.
The Zuma wing of the ANC and the EFF combined have pushed black electoral politics towards left-wing populism. The problem for Ramaphosa is that the Zuma wing will attempt to shift the party towards leftist populism, into the space currently occupied by the EFF.
There is a fierce battle between the Ramaphosa and Zuma wings of the ANC. Ramaphosa's choice is to either attempt unity with the Zuma group, compromise with them, which would mean taking on some of their leftist populist policies; and then presumably at the same time neutralise the rising left-wing populism of the EFF, because the ANC would have adopted similar policies to the EFF.
Ahead of the election, to appease the Zuma-faction and to counter the EFF threat, Ramaphosa supported populist policies pushed by the Zuma group, such as land expropriation without compensation. The Zuma group will continue to push Ramaphosa towards populist policies, knowing he opposes it, in their attempt to undermine his power. However, pursuing a populist strategy will undermine market confidence, which Ramaphosa desperately needs, as he tries to attract local and foreign investment, to tackle high unemployment, poverty, and low growth.
If Ramaphosa, emboldened by his electoral mandate, takes on the Zuma faction and pursues his genuinely social democratic policies, he may push the Zuma-ites out of the ANC. They could, in turn, form their own left-wing populist parties. In the event that the Zuma-ites leave the Ramaphosa ANC, none of the two different ANC groups would then on their own be able to secure a government, and will have to seek coalitions. A Zuma-ANC presumably could go into coalition with the EFF.
ANC-DA coalition would remake SA politics
The Ramaphosa-ANC could then conceivably go into coalition with the DA. This would remake South Africa's politics: A Ramaphosa ANC on the centre-left and the DA on the centre-right; and a leftist populist grouping of the Zuma-ANC and the EFF.
The EFF alliance with the DA at local government level has already changed another facet of South Africa's politics: in the past supposedly black parties would lose their street credit if they partnered with formerly white parties.
South Africa has typical developing country demographics - a young population, with the majority of them marginalised. Most of the youth were born after the end of apartheid, and have experienced the ANC government mostly as a failure. Many born-frees, born after 1994, have embraced the EFF, meaning the EFF has the most growth potential currently of all the major parties.
ANC members and supporters are getting older, as the struggle generations pass on; and as it battles to attract new younger supporters. The DA gets the young middle class and professional blacks - however they are a small electoral group. Both the Ramaphosa-ANC and the DA will have to work harder to secure young blacks vote for them in the future. A Zuma-ANC will also not attract mass disgruntled youth. Whatever one's views of the EFF and its leaders, they are remaking South Africa's politics.