ANC is no match for the EFF’s brain-numbing lies
It was the only populist option on the block, until its sleepily bovine bluff was called five years ago
Populism is getting some bad press around the world, but let’s not throw the baby out with the Nazis. Because let’s be honest: populism is a great strategy if you can’t do anything else. Which is why the ANC has embraced it, opting to change the Constitution, maybe, to allow land expropriation without compensation, probably, except where it won’t, or neither, almost certainly, or not.
Fundamentally a low-skill organisation offering sheltered employment, the ANC decided some time ago to cut its losses and concentrate on doing just one thing well: corruption. And, to be fair, it’s done very well in that regard. One might even say that when it comes to transforming the state into a predatory extraction machine, it has developed a culture of genuine excellence.
Which is why it made sense for the party to ramp up the low-key populism it has dabbled in since 1994.
The appeal of populism is rooted in its basic psychology. And it is pretty basic. Its driving energy is a powerfully seductive and deeply primitive idea: that there is an endless struggle between “the people” (who see things as they truly are and embody all the best aspects of humanity) and a shadowy cabal of monocle-wearing, sword-cane-swishing cads, called variously, the Establishment, the Political Elite, the Mainstream Media, or, if you’re Julius Malema, whoever criticised you that morning.Now here’s where it gets good. Because if you’ve been elected by “the people”, you are, by definition, one of them. You share their righteousness and wisdom. Which means that if anything nasty happens to them – say, raised taxes or the suspension of property rights or the odd shooting – it couldn’t have been you that did it. It must, by definition, have been the enemies of the people – those top-hat-wearing lizard people that are everywhere but somehow invisible.
No, nothing is ever your fault. But that’s not even the best part. Because the best part is you can blame everything on capitalism or the CIA or liberals or snowflakes, and “the people” will believe you. Because they have to, right? If they doubt you, the standard-bearer of the common folk, then are they still bona fide “people” or are they showing elitist tendencies?
Yes, it’s a great little gig if you get it right. But there’s a catch. To get it right, you don’t just need to lie. You need to lie well. Not too big. Not too small. Just that happy, heartstring-plucking, eye-glazing, brain-numbing Goldilocks temperature right in the middle.
Good lies. They’re why the EFF has promised land but not, for example, a Lamborghini for everyone over the age of 12. It understands that there are limits to what people will believe, even people who believe Malema is in it for them.
Which is why the ANC is in such terrible trouble.
Unchallenged for decades as the only populist option on the left, its promises have become as anaemic as a homeopathy prescription: “A better life for all, as long as you make it for yourself in conjunction with a regime of diet and exercise and actual medicine.”It might have got away with a few more years. Certainly, the Democratic Alliance was never going to keep its populism game sharp. Just this week the DA reminded us that it is not a populist party, firmly rejecting a conflict between the people and the elite by focusing entirely on a conflict between the elite and the elite. Short of taking out a full-page ad reading “Eat The Poor”, the De Lille saga couldn’t have been less populist if it tried.
Yes, the ANC might have waddled on; but five years ago its sleepily bovine bluff was called. The EFF arrived, a political Oprah yelling: “You get a farm and you get a farm!” and suddenly the ANC’s lies looked desperately thin. It had promised social grants; the EFF was promising economic freedom.
Which brings us back to this fractious, anxious present, and a terrible crisis for the ANC.
It cannot offer service delivery or meaningful education or job creation because it is not designed for any of those things. To expect the ANC to govern is like expecting a mugger to offer Jungian psychoanalysis.
Which means all it can do is commit fully to the poker game that is our current political reality; trying to bluff its way to a better hand; desperately seeing the EFF’s ever-rising bids.
It was inevitable that it would promise to change the Constitution. But it can’t win against an opponent that can escalate its lies the way failing states print money. At some point it will have to tell the truth. I’m just not sure it knows how any more.