EFF coronavirus

Image via Twitter: Economic Freedom Fighters

Inside the EFF: What we learnt from the National People’s Assembly

Political columnist Jan-Jan Joubert relives the party’s biggest calendar event and unpacks issues around policy, language, race and religion.

EFF coronavirus

Image via Twitter: Economic Freedom Fighters

The recently held EFF national congress (named the National People’s Assembly) at Nasrec south of Johannesburg, gave us a strong indication of the dynamics, the thought processes, the successes, failures and shortcomings of the party, as well of what to expect of them in future.  

The EFF National People’s Assembly is held every five years. This was the second such event, and it was held five years to the day after the first edition, which took place in Bloemfontein from 13 to 16 December 2014.

As with any party political congress, some developments were very positive, some represented little change and others were a disgrace. Let’s start with the positives.

Unpacking the National People’s Assembly

Firstly, then the focus and dedication with which each of the more than 3 000 delegates approached their task and branch mandates. They sat steadfastly, listening to and participating in debates. No-one seemed too intimidated or shy to state the mandate of their mandates on any given topic.

None of the mass gatherings outside the conference venue wandering aimlessly, caucusing, gossiping, acting immorally or sneaking off to the shops (granted, the area around Nasrec does not offer much in the way of retail therapy).

Secondly, the standard of the congress discussion documents were of a standard we are not used to in South Africa, both in the standard of research and in their presentation. One needs not agree with the policy propositions, but of one thing you can be sure: No-one who took a policy decision on the strength of this 250-page document can claim that they were uninformed.

The facts and figures, as well as the summary of the causes and recent developments on issues of national importance, are excellent and I shall definitely use it as a reference point in future.

A final point on those discussion documents. The day I write such excellent, flowing English, I can die in peace. The style and standard of writing differ with the style of whoever was responsible for that chapter, but the difference is between good and excellent. 

The only other party which regularly produces discussion documents before congresses (they call them conferences) is the ANC, but they are disjointed, serving merely as an indication of how far the erstwhile liberation movement has veered off course, into a cul de sac of criminality and compromise.

No other parties issue decent research to the delegates attending their congresses so as to ensure informed policy discussion. Perhaps the DA should try it. 

An ‘honourable’ EFF

Thirdly (and this was as true of the first EFF National People’s Assembly in 2014), I found the friendliness, decency, industriousness and honourable behaviour quite inspiring. Honourable? Yes. I can personally attest to that, and here’s how:

As with all parties’ congresses, the media is not allowed in each and every session and at one point we had to leave the hall. I left my jacket. which is my most expensive piece of clothing (yes, I am short of style and money, I know) in the hall and only realised it about ten hours later, at which point I was furious with myself because I was quite sure it had been expropriated without compensation – not because it was an EFF congress but because that is what would happen anywhere in the world if you did not look after your things.

Well, the jacket was exactly where I had left it. That jacket was safe between 3 000 people of whom the vast majority were clearly struggling economically. Well done, EFF…well done, fellow South Africans.

A very obvious characteristic of this congress was that not so much as a piece of paper was littered. The National People’s Assembly was as neat and clean as Germany or Switzerland. Where else in South Africa would 4 000 people gather for four days and no littering would take place? Could you match it, scallywags of the ANC, DA, IFP or Freedom Front Plus?

Fourthly, EFF leader Julius Malema’s opening speech was simply the most interesting I have ever listened to at the congress of any party. Brevity it did not have – it lasted about three hours. But I for one was never bored.

It dealt with the events of the past five years and set out policy options; it discussed what Malema considers to be the party’s shortcomings warts and all and – truly unusual – it attempted to provide coherent and considered answers to many major points of criticism raised against the EFF (outsiders, political analysts, opponents) over the last five years.

Obviously not everyone would agree with all the explanations – far from it. But it clearly encapsulated months of work and thinking – the EFF takes itself and its National People’s Assembly very seriously indeed.

As an example, take the EFF reaction to some of the DA’s more reactionary types that the Red Berets are fascist. Malema provided a lesson in political history, contrasting the actual history of fascism with his view of what the EFF is, to make the case that the EFF is not fascist. We now await an equally facts-based and historically accurate rebuttal on the same level from the right wing of the DA.

Perhaps one waits in vain.

Policy shifts: NHI and property rights

Policy-wise, two important perceived shifts by the EFF are very noteworthy, and the first opens the door to possible renewed opposition co-operation in the national interest. That apparent shift is in the EFF’s stance on the National Health Insurance (NHI). Although the party backs the principle from a socialist perspective, their opinion seems to echo that of many other critics, namely that the current ANC government has neither the funds nor the expertise to implement it successfully.

If the five largest opposition parties – the DA, EFF, IFP, Freedom Front Plus and ACDP – were to put their heads and their efforts together, they could mount an excellent assault on the potentially disastrous ANC pet project.

A second perceived policy shift concerns property rights. The EFF seems to have ameliorated its thus far seemingly hard-line socialist policies on a number of issues, not least of which is its acceptance of the principle of testamentary inheritance and its acceptance of private ownership of everything except the means of production.

Which does not diminish the potentially destructive effects should much of the rest of the EFF policy platform ever be implemented. What it does show is a certain elasticity of thought, and where there is elasticity of thought, there is hope.

But one issue on which the EFF seems unreasonably rigid is its view of the state as the prime driver of economic growth.

Given all available information on the state of South African state-owned enterprises – and given the EFF’s own labour policies, which make it almost impossible to fire anyone – if the EFF were ever to run South Africa, it would be with the same (so-called) civil servants who are currently messing up all sorts of state-owned enterprises across the board. The EFF’s replies to questions on this issue have been vague at best, and have amounted to that they will copy the Chinese model.

Good luck with doing that in a democracy founded on human rights.

Serious flaws in the EFF’s voting system

The National People’s Assembly also exposed some serious fault lines within the EFF, of which the two most important ones have direct consequences for democracy and freedom.

Firstly, the way in which the EFF conducts internal elections is very problematic indeed. It is a system of majoritarian intimidation – not of democracy. To wit: A candidate requires 30% support from the floor (by show of hands; unbelievable, but true) to gain a candidacy for any leadership position, which in this case amounted to 954 delegates. So whenever a candidate was nominated, 954 hands had to be raised to qualify a candidacy and force an election.

It is nothing but a rather unsubtle form of voter intimidation, because everyone can see who the winner will be. And who would dare to not openly support the powerful?

It is wrong, and it does the EFF no credit.

It was therefore no surprise that not a single leadership position was democratically contested. Quite frankly, it is a disgrace, not a voting system.

Militarisation of security measures

The second major fault line is the militarisation of security measures. Several people in uniform fulfilled this function. At least most of them seemed to be unarmed, which puts them a level above the trigger-happy, once-we-were-warriors losers, named the MK veterans, which one encounters at ANC conferences.

But is the militarisation really needed or desirable? It is infantile and dangerous, and exactly zero percent of thinking people were in the least bit surprised when four female EFF delegates ended up in hospital after being tear-gassed by one of the no doubt deeply intelligent and well-trained Keystone Cop goons.

The goon was fired forthwith, but the damage had been done. Regret without reform is meaningless and cheap. One awaits demilitarisation – probably in vain, though. Sigh.

EFF on language, race and religion

In conclusion, it may well interest readers to note the reaction of delegates to three ever-contentious issues – language, race and religion. On language, every delegate was free (and generally availed themselves of the opportunity) to address the National People’s Assembly in their South African official language of choice, with English nevertheless dominant.

And where in the past the EFF was aggressively opposed to Afrikaans, this seems to have been toned down decisively and from time to time speakers from the podium gave indications of a certain goodwill towards the language some of us (including me personally) love – an apparent and undeclared, deeply welcome change of heart which has also seemingly manifested itself in Parliament over recent months.

As far as race goes, some racist anti-white comments were made from time to time, and the interesting thing was that it did not specifically play well with the audience. Criticism of the ANC drew more support and applause.

Finally, then: Religion. The EFF is unashamedly Christian, with no other religion specifically acknowledged from the podium, and strong inputs from charismatic churches as an important input into the programme. It could prove an interesting new factor in South African politics – and one of several fascinating tendencies originating at the second National People’s Assembly.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of TheSouthAfrican.com.