🔮 South Africa’s populist EFF stirs up parliamentary affairs

Recent electoral success for the Economic Freedom Fighters means the global rise of populism has firmly reached South Africa. But Ainara Mancebo cautions that most of EFF's parliamentary efforts focus merely on criticising the ruling party, and exposing its failures. EFF pledges to transform the South African economy, she says, ring hollow

In their foundational piece for this series, Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti warn about overestimating populism as a phenomenon: populists, they say, have already penetrated mainstream party politics. Michael Bauer asks whether we should consider the arrival of populist parties in the state and its institutions as a corrective force in representative democracies. The main goal of the South African populist party EFF, for example, is not to contribute to policy-making. Nor is it to form coalitions gathering agreements from other parties. Rather, it is simply to win as many votes as possible.

In this quest, EFF exploits confrontation dynamics in a society that is already deeply divided. The party has emerged as a regressive force, undermining the deliberative and accommodative elements of South Africa's consociational democracy.

Threats to an emergent democracy

Intensification of sectarian politics in divided societies can jeopardise legitimacy and stability. Ethnic accommodation and inclusivity have been key to consolidating the South African consensus model of democracy. But almost three decades of African National Congress (ANC) dominance has led to cartelisation.

Chronic corruption, along with severe and prolonged economic crises, have institutionally weakened South Africa's established party system

Chronic corruption, along with severe and prolonged economic crises, have institutionally weakened South Africa's established party system. As Alexander Langenkamp and Simon Bienstman point out, citizens use populist outlets to express their discontent or vulnerability. Populists promise a more authentic mode of representation: a power shift away from the elite and towards the people.

EFF: populist newcomers in parliament

EFF has changed the South African parliament's partisan landscape in a fundamental way. It is the third-largest parliamentary party, presenting a challenge to both the ruling ANC and the longstanding largest opposition, the Democratic Alliance party. EFF's leader, Julius Malema, claims, when he speaks of 'the people', to represent poor and black South Africans.

Malema’s divisive us-versus-them narrative aligns with populism's moral antagonism. EFF portrays the ANC as an elite cartel undermining people's trust in democracy. At the same time, Malema resorts to unconventional parliamentary techniques. His theatrical antics rely on popular, coarse, sometimes unparliamentary language – and even politically incorrect acts – to grab public attention. His behaviour corresponds with Pierre Ostiguy’s socio-cultural approach to populism. Ostiguy describes how politicians behave in a transgressive, provocative way to endear themselves to 'the people', and to place themselves at odds with the well-mannered (but corrupt) elite.

As vehicles of representation, parties can choose to act positively, cooperating with other political actors to form policies. Or, they can concentrate all their efforts on negative campaigning, denouncing those in power to maximise votes.

Parliamentary data debunks the populist myth

South African parliamentary data is consonant with that from other countries. EFF politicians use their parliamentary questions simply to condemn government policies. They regularly vote against bills, opposing ANC policies, yet contribute little themselves to policy formation. And compared with MPs from non-populist parties, EFF members have a far higher rate of absenteeism from parliamentary committees.

EFF chooses responsiveness over responsibility. Its MPs condemn the ruling party and use parliamentary privilege to wheedle out information. Their aim is merely to reveal how the government has made mistakes or ignored important societal problems. To get their voice heard, EFF MPs doggedly vote against any government-introduced legislation, whether they agree with it or not.

EFF falls far short of its grand promises. It has absolutely no desire to work constructively alongside other parliamentary parties for the benefit of ordinary South Africans

In reality, EFF falls far short of its grand promises. It has absolutely no desire to form political coalitions that would legitimise parliament's current institutional framework. It is constantly accusing the ANC of being an elite cartel, and blocks options to work constructively with other political parties.

To get themselves noticed, EFF MPs resort to theatrical gestures in parliament. They stand out from the crowd in red berets and workers’ uniforms. They create disruptions in the legislative chamber, well aware that citizens and commentators will be watching proceedings on TV. EFF disturbances have sometimes escalated to such a point that several MPs have had to be physically removed from the chamber.

How EFF threatens South African politics

EFF has never sought to be a constructive political opposition. It wants merely to unmask the failures and limitations of the ruling party. Rather than working to formulate policies that might genuinely benefit ordinary South Africans, EFF uses parliament as a vehicle to amplify its opposition to the governing majority.

EFF has never sought to be a constructive opposition. Rather than working to formulate genuinely beneficial policies, it wants merely to unmask the failures of the ruling party

When populist parties succeed, it's a sign that something is wrong with a country's representative institutions. EFF remains hostile to divergent interests and demands. It lacks any interest in bargaining with rival forces. In this way, the party rejects the consensual elements of South Africa's political system.

South Africa remains a deeply divided society. EFF's activities only encourage social exclusion and confrontation dynamics. The rise of EFF thus constitutes a fundamental threat to the stability and cohesiveness of South Africa's consociational democracy.

No.45 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Ainara Mancebo
Ainara Mancebo
Research Scholar, Ronin Institute, New Jersey

Ainara specialises in comparative democracy.

She has more than 20 years’ experience in a variety of journalistic, publishing and public affairs consultancy in Spain, France, US and South Africa.

Ainara’s research interests include institutional change, electoral systems, party systems and party behaviour.

Populism and parliamentary opposition parties: the Economic Freedom Fighters' party behaviour in the South African parliament
Journal of Legislative Studies, 2023

South African Opposition Party Behaviour Under the National State of Disaster to Respond to the Covid-19 Pandemic
Politikon, 2021

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