Parliament Robusta: The Economic Freedom Fighters and the Nature of Legislative Bodies

Patricide: A Political Backstory

South African president Jacob Zuma once decreed that the African National Congress (ANC) would remain the unassailable government of South Africa “until Jesus comes”. On the night of May 7th 2014, perhaps he looked back on these words and thought of the words of Proverbs: pride goeth before the fall. Since coming to power in 2008 by ousting President Thabo Mbeki , Zuma had moved to consolidate control within the ANC by dispensing with internal rivals. Among his targets was Julius Sello Malema, the leader of the influential ANC Youth League (ANCYL). Malema, a brilliant but controversial orator inhabiting the ANC’s radical left, had once been a key Zuma ally and played a central role in Zuma’s ascension. However, Malema’s inflammatory rhetoric quickly became a thorn in Zuma’s side, while Zuma’s conduct in office simultaneously turned Malema against his former patron. Tensions built after government police forces shot down striking laborers in the mining town of Marikana in August 2012, an event which Malema would later characterize as murder committed by Zuma ally and current vice president Cyril Ramaphosa. By 2013, Malema had become a threat to Zuma’s hegemony within the ANC and was forced out of the party.

Zuma’s actions came back to bite him. Malema joined together with radical allies such as Floyd Shivambu— who was also expelled from the ANCYL — to organize his own political faction, the Economic Freedom Fighters. The EFF articulated a revolutionary, socialist, pan-Africanist, and anti-corruption message. They called for the expropriation and distribution of large tracts of white-owned land, full nationalization of key economic sectors such as mines, and universal provision of housing, education, water, electricity, healthcare, and childcare. They called for a firm break with the historical legacy of apartheid. And they called for an end to the increasingly blatant displays of corruption that had come to define the Jacob Zuma years (Malema’s own history of likely corruption notwithstanding).

Only a year old, with almost no operating budget, and with no friends in the media, the EFF struck upon a three-pronged strategy: (1) effective branding, including the wearing of red berets and red overalls representing working class attire; (2) a rigid internal organization predicated upon democratic centralism; and (3) the personal charisma and compelling oratory of its “commander-in-chief”, Julius Malema. Surprising virtually the entire establishment, this three-pronged battle plan won the EFF 6.8% of the vote, and meaningful parliamentary representation, in the 2014 elections. The EFF has yet to bring the revolution to South Africa. But they wasted no time in bringing the revolution to its parliament.

Red Berets and Empty Suits

The South African parliament, designed following the establishment of democracy in 1994, operates like a more permissive variant of the Westminster model. Though debate can at times mirror the speed and question-and-answer style of the British system, and the speaker or presiding officer likewise has significant personal influence on the tone of debate, there are fewer constraints on MPs’ behavior. In the past, this had largely been irrelevant. During the Mbeki years and the first half of the Zuma years, parliament was moribund and stale, devoid of much meaningful deliberation. Debates in parliament generally had little or no impact on the national conversation. The largest opposition party, the majority-white Democratic Alliance (DA), was still struggling to define what parliamentary opposition meant in the post-Apartheid world. Other opposition parties, such as the vaguely social-democratic Congress of the People (COPE) or the Zulu autonomist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), were unable to break through the sense that parliament existed simply to rubber-stamp Zuma’s apparatchiks. Parliament was perceived as an impotent snooze-fest, and few in the media — let alone outside of it — took any notice of parliamentary debates. This was actually quite problematic, as Zuma was at the same time systematically pushing critics out of the ANC, the executive branch, and even the judiciary. Representatives of the various opposition factions and of the non-Zumaite factions within the ANC retained their seats in parliament, but the non-presence of parliament in the national discussion negated any meaningful opportunities for them to have their voices heard more broadly.

The EFF changed all of this. Donning their red overalls, they were from the beginning contemptuous of the conventions of parliament. They frequently “abuse” parliamentary procedure through calling excessive and unjustified points of order in order to interrupt other speakers  They use  “undignified” rhetoric such as dismissing government ministers as insignificant “ministers of Instagram” or referring to Zuma as “Zupta”, in reference to the Gupta family, a wealthy family widely seen as having undue influence on the president through corrupt dealings. They sometimes pull sophomoric stunts for attention (for example, using the Afrikaans slang word Fokol, roughly meaning ‘nothing’, in an English resolution). Most importantly, they bring their aggressive rhetoric into the chamber, from proclaiming that Ramaphosa has blood on his hands from Marikana to accusing speaker Baleka Mbete of favoring white MPs because she is “scared of white people”.

Unsurprisingly, EFF rhetoric is at its most dramatic when referring to Zuma and the current leadership of the ANC. In 2014, EFF MPs, aided by Malema’s thunderous denunciations, delayed Zuma’s State of the Nation address for half an hour in 2014, chanting and shouting “pay back the money” (a reference to Zuma’s use of state funds to improve his private property) until they had to be forcibly removed from parliament. To this day,  EFF MPs still refuse to remain in the chamber whenever Zuma speaks, branding him a “criminal”, insisting that parliament itself must take legal action against him, and declaring his presidency generally illegitimate.

…parliament has a lot more impact. Television and newspapers cover it more, it trends fairly often on social media, and more people are generally informed about parliamentary happenings – meaning, to some extent, that they are more informed about the politics of opposition parties.

Since 2014, the EFF has improved and some say even mastered its disruptive tactics: Shivambu, the EFF’s chief whip, has a keen grasp of parliamentary rules and frequently uses procedure to his benefit, while Malema’s parliamentary speeches are forceful and clear. Nor is the EFF’s old guard the entirety of the show; even comparatively new EFF MPs like Leigh-Ann Mathys have won praise for their parliamentary acumen. Though they define themselves in opposition to the conventions of a bourgeois parliament, they’ve learned to use those conventions to devastating effect.

Popular Response

Responses to this politics of agitprop have been mixed. To some extent, it’s clearly worked for the EFF, which grew its support base in this year’s municipal elections to around 8.2%.  The vast majority of South African media have decried it bitterly, calling the new style of parliament a circus, an embarrassment, or a national disgrace. In response to these efforts, all significant non-EFF parties came together to create amendments to the parliamentary rulebook, precluding some of the EFF’s most disruptive tactics (but continuing to allow most of them). The EFF claims that its tactics are simply “robustness”, an excuse EFF figures use with almost comical regularity.

Broadly, however, there are two main changes engendered by the EFF’s combative style. First, parliament has a lot more impact. Television and newspapers cover it more, it trends fairly often on social media, and more people are generally informed about parliamentary happenings – meaning, to some extent, that they are more informed about the politics of opposition parties. Second, non-EFF parliamentarians, particularly within the rest of the opposition, have shifted their tactics in response. Many now engage more vigorously with the topics at hand and use blunter language, calling the government to account with somewhat greater success.

Therefore, as lacking in nuance as the EFF’s explanation of “robustness” may be, the sentiment is not actually wrong. In fact, in a global and historical sense, the post-EFF South African parliament might be uniquely successful at fulfilling two often opposing general goals of parliaments.

Deliberation and Performance

Throughout history, some legislative chambers have relied upon an aura of ‘senatoriality’ – the sense that they represent an exclusive meeting place for the political (and social) elite, an institutionalized ‘back room’ in which quid pro quos are to be given and sausage to be made. The archetypal case of a deliberative body with this sort of ethos is the Roman Senate, but a number of other assemblies have also presented themselves in this tradition, including the US Senate. It is fair to say that such assemblies present themselves very much as deliberative organs, facilitating deal-making and candor by isolating themselves somewhat from the whirlwinds of popular democracy.

By contrast, some legislative chambers have entirely replaced their deliberative function with a performative function. Legislative bodies in the Cold-War Era Eastern bloc fall into this category. Though few major policy decisions were made in these bodies, it is wrong to say that they had no legitimate place in government or civil society. Rather, they served as ritualized expressions of “popular democracy”, a performative affirmation of civic society’s link with the state (i.e. the party). Because of this, such assemblies had almost no insulation from the popular sphere: they were highly accessible and superficially transparent, as there would be little point in performative politics without an audience.

Intuitively, the performative and deliberative functions of any assembly ought to clash with one another, requiring any legislative organ to position itself somewhere upon a two-dimensional spectrum with pure deliberativeness and pure performativity at opposite ends. Thus, any increase in performativity should logically require a decrease in deliberativeness and vice versa.

The South African case, though, belies this cozy dichotomy. Since the entrance of the EFF, the level of deliberativeness associated with parliament has changed little. Real decisions are still made in parliament, and they are still largely under the control of the dominant elements of the ANC. Furthermore, opposition factions retain a genuine parliamentary voice, their lack of serious power notwithstanding. EFF participation in subcommittees, where most legislative work actually gets done, has been fairly standard. They have maintained their idiosyncratic style and controversial agenda, but have largely been prepared and responsible participants, reserving most of their showmanship for the main assembly.

However, the performativity of parliament has changed: it is more open than ever, not in terms of theoretical accessibility, but in terms of ‘robust’ popular debate. Parliament has a much more important function in the popular consciousness, playing a larger role in shaping and channeling people’s interactions with their leaders. The fact that parliament is to a greater extent ‘for public consumption’ is not a bad thing, as it fosters civic society. Moreover, in a country whose state broadcaster (SABC) has a questionable relationship with the ANC, and whose president rarely gives interviews, opposition parties desperately need a counterweight to the ANCs’ messaging juggernaut. This can partially be achieved through a public and active parliament.

In short, the South African parliament has avoided becoming less deliberative while actually becoming more performative and accessible. The future is always uncertain, but for now, an increased popular awareness of the parliament, coupled with steady levels of the its deliberative functionality, seems a positive development – and something for which to thank Malema and the Fighters.