South Africa is rapidly approaching a significant milestone with its 2024 national general election. Recent electoral trends and opinion polls indicate that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is poised to fall below the 50% threshold of the national vote for the first time since the advent of democracy in 1994.
This potential shift is expected to usher in South Africa’s inaugural national coalition government, marking the end of single-party dominance.
A crucial player in this transformation is the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the nation’s third-largest political party, whose electoral support has been steadily growing since 2014.
During this period, the ANC’s electoral backing has diminished from over 62% in 2014 to 57.50% in 2019, while the Democratic Alliance (DA), the primary opposition, has seen a decline from over 22% to 20.7%.
In contrast, the EFF’s share of the vote increased from just over 6% in its debut election in 2014 to about 11% in 2019.
The EFF has also secured more seats in provincial legislatures and municipal councils in 2014 and 2016, with a substantial portion of its support coming from younger voters.
Our perspective stems from our expertise as political scientists specialising in leftist parties in Latin America and South Africa. A comprehensive analysis of the EFF, focusing on the party’s communication strategies.
Our research drew upon survey and exit polling data and delved into the ideology, strategy, and tactics of the EFF from the vantage point of political communication theory.
This theory centers on how political actors construct and disseminate their messages to the public.
Our findings suggest that the EFF has attained a notable position in South African politics by portraying itself as the true torchbearer of the values the ANC championed during the anti-apartheid struggle, as articulated in the Freedom Charter, which serves as the blueprint for a liberated South Africa.
The EFF accuses the ANC of relinquishing this agenda, allowing black South African voters to shift their allegiance from the ANC to the EFF without altering their political orientation.
This shift is underpinned by the EFF’s concentration on issues such as land reform and job creation, which deeply resonate with the country’s historical experience of black land dispossession and persistent youth unemployment.
The EFF was officially established as a political party in July 2013 following the expulsion of its leader, Julius Malema, from the ANC in 2012.
Malema had previously served as the president of the ANC Youth League before his expulsion due to misconduct.
In the 2014 elections, the EFF garnered 1.2 million votes and secured 25 seats in parliament.
By the 2019 national election, it had bolstered its presence with 44 seats in parliament and just under 1.9 million votes.
The EFF’s greatest support is concentrated in the North West province, where it garnered 17.9% of the vote in the 2019 national general elections. This was followed by significant support in Gauteng (13.53%) and Limpopo provinces (13.14%).
It holds the position of the official opposition in North West, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga, where it secured 11.51% of the vote.
The party continues to face challenges in the Western Cape (4.1%) and the Eastern Cape (7.72%), but its share of the vote in KwaZulu-Natal increased from 1.97% in 2014 to 9.96% in 2019.
In the 2021 local elections, the EFF received 10.31% of the vote, largely reflecting its 2019 national results.
Ideology, strategy, and tactics
Our analysis aimed to unravel the factors behind the EFF’s growth and its role within the party system. We scrutinised the party’s ideology and assessed its strategy and tactics as articulated in its electoral documents.
According to the party’s 2013 founding manifesto, it positions itself as “anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist” and opposes what it labels the “neo-liberal agenda” of the ANC.
The EFF presents itself as a radical and militant economic emancipation movement rooted in popular grassroots organisations and struggles, encompassing workers’ movements, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), community-based organisations, and lobby groups.
To establish itself as a viable radical alternative to the ANC, the EFF has harnessed strategies such as “grievance exploitation,” radical posturing, agenda setting, and framing.
Inequality, racialised land ownership patterns, persistent racism, and unemployment are among the primary grievances the party has exploited.
The EFF has executed this strategy through political communication and theatrical actions in parliament, which have included wearing workers’ uniforms, disrupting proceedings, and chanting slogans.
It has also championed issues in various forums, from the streets and social media to the courts and party events.
The EFF has engaged in confrontations with entities it perceives as racist, including companies, white farmers, schools, and other opponents, to advance its narrative.
The EFF’s success in the North West, Mpumalanga, and Limpopo is closely linked to the party’s rhetoric on the mining sector, a significant industry in these provinces.
The party’s strategic political communication portrays it as fighting for oppressed mine workers or host communities in these areas, notably exemplified by its involvement in the Marikana region, the site of the 2012 massacre of striking mine workers by police.
Moreover, Limpopo holds special significance for the EFF as it is the home base of the party’s founders, Julius Malema and his deputy, Floyd Shivambu.
Founder constituencies tend to play a significant role in a party’s success in South Africa, as observed with other parties like the Inkatha Freedom Party and the National Freedom Party in KwaZulu-Natal.
Our findings indicate that among students who switched their allegiance from the ANC to the EFF, reasons cited included corruption and unfulfilled promises.
Those who transitioned from the Democratic Alliance were drawn by the EFF’s appeal as a more radical alternative.
In our assessment, the EFF appears to have experienced a loss of momentum in its political communication strategy following the departure of former President Jacob Zuma in February 2018.
Additionally, the party has made tactical errors, such as baselessly accusing President Cyril Ramaphosa of corruption, which may have undermined its credibility.
Furthermore, South Africa is witnessing the emergence of several new parties that will participate in the 2024 elections, including ActionSA, Build One South Africa, and Rise Mzansi.
These parties may offer alternatives to the ANC on the governance front without the radical politics of the EFF or the racial politics of the DA.
The upcoming elections will reveal whether these alternatives pose a significant challenge to the EFF and its long-term prospects as an alternative to the ANC.