‘A giant is born,’ said Julius Malema, ‘the Commander-in-Chief’ of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) at the confirmation of the party’s registration in Pretoria on the 8th of October in 2013. There has been a veritable hurricane of responses following the birth of this ‘giant’ and the effects have rippled into South African public life and memory. With the EFF running for elections for the first time all sorts of speculations are rampant. Perhaps a time has arrived for an overall although not exhaustive assessment of the EFF since its inception.
Although the EFF has only existed for a relatively brief time, it is fair to claim that it is a serious split from the ANC as it not only originated from the ANC but also brings with it many of the ANC’s radical group. The ANC obviously takes this seriously, even though it publicly tries to dismiss Malema and his group and has actively put stumbling blocks in the way of his party. From the beginning the EFF wanted to distance itself from the ANC, even ideologically. Instead, it invited involvement by social activist groups and community organisations that agree, broadly speaking, with its seven non-negotiable cardinal principles. These are as follows.
1. Expropriation of South Africa’s land, without compensation, for equal redistribution.
2. Nationalisation of mines, banks and other strategic sectors of the economy, without compensation.
3. Building state and government capacity, which will lead to the abolishment of tenders.
4. Free quality education, healthcare, houses and sanitation.
5. Massive protected industrial development to create millions of sustainable jobs, including the introduction of minimum wages to close the wage gap between the rich and the poor.
6. Massive development of the African economy and advocating for a move from reconciliation to justice in the entire continent.
7. Open, accountable, corrupt-free government and society without fear of victimisation by state agencies.
For many both inside and outside of the EFF its official ideology means very little. Most are attracted by the figure of Malema, as the chief advocate and orator of nationalization and land expropriation and the promise of ‘economic freedom in our lifetime’. These positions are so synonymous with the EFF that any move towards a policy somewhat more radical on land and tougher on mines can be seen as a pressure victory for the EFF. The EFF’s strategy can be summarised as taking over the state and making it the central player in the South African economy.
For the EFF sees the state as the key player, and as interventionist in the most real sense, by providing a wider range of services that are financed through higher taxation and state-owned companies, by increasing grants, raising the minimum wage, and taking a harsher stance towards foreign capital through ‘indigenisation’ policies.
This is one of the reasons that makes the EFF a bogeyman for many white South Africans. Another is that the EFF positions itself as supposedly unapologetically speaking for the black majority, without euphemism, and for this reason they have been labelled racist and anti-white. What this claim to articulate the plight of black South Africans means is that the ANC’s in its tenure in power has failed blacks and it challenges the ANC’s image of championing black people’s interests. Many who would have opted not to support the ANC under Zuma and would never vote for the DA, might see the EFF as an alternative – if not permanent one, but certainly as a protest vote for the elections of 2014.
The EFF is presented with many opportunities and challenges leading up to the 2014 elections on May 7. One challenge is that its leader might not qualify to stand for Parliament, though this is still contested by Malema’s lawyers. The EFF is adamant that its Commander in Chief is going to Parliament; they claim that the ANC is behind this issue. Some feel that whether or not it is true or not, it is creating sympathy for Malema and making him into a martyr.
The EFF has been criticised for its hyper-masculine posture and language. Feminists are generally not attracted this style of politicking from a younger generation of leaders, who are assumed to be more gender conscious than the current generation. However, the EFF’s official position is that it supports women’s liberation and condemns sexism, homophobia and other forms of gendered oppression. While this is the case on paper, the reality is some top EFF members face charges of rape and there has been no real stance on this from the EFF other than that they will ‘look into it.’
Malema’s own past positions on gender have been decidedly lacking, to say the least. There is also Floyd Shivambu’s record of calling a journalist a ‘white bitch’ and of course his infamous ‘sleeping around is sleeping around’ comments. If some may feel that this is water under the bridge, there is still something the EFF needs to demonstrate: its leadership is dominated by men, particularly its central command team, and women are largely kept to the sidelines of the organisation. The EFF has been rather muted in public on gender issues and homophobia; the best Malema has managed so far is to inform his members to keep their zips up and not rape.
One of EFF’s major strengths is to place itself within community struggles, going to very impoverished areas where the ANC has lost some credibility. In other instances the EFF has presented itself as representing workers’ interests when no-one else would, and this has made it popular with those communities (such as Kokosi, Fochville in 2013 and Relele in 2014). At times the EFF has stood against police brutality so it has seen some success in being regarded as being on the ground and displaying solidarity with communities that opposition parties fear or neglect to visit. Malema’s speeches in these areas are an occasion and there is always a crowd, across the country. The ruling party’s deficiencies are highlighted every time the EFF shows up after the police gun down another protestor. The inability of the ANC and its affiliates to show any leadership as communities burn opens up a leadership vacuum, which the EFF is trying to fill.
The EFF manifesto launch in Thembisa attracted a crowd of at least 50 000 supporters, which no other opposition party could dream of attracting on its own. Juju’s charisma is possessed by no other politician in South Africa and his oratorical abilities put the likes of Zille, Zuma and Ramphele to shame, in a political culture dominated by platitudes about economic development and twitter gaffes. His oratory is based on three key factors:
1. his ability to communicate politics in a language and form which is highly entertaining and reaches people (his speeches are never dull);
2. he is not constrained by any of the taboos imposed by our myopic mainstream political discourse and he speaks a politics which is qualitatively different to both the DA and the ANC; and
3. he can think on his feet and manages to adapt to his environment: he speaks to his crowd rather than reading out words prepared by some trained party hack.
But the glaring problem for the EFF is precisely its dependence on Julius Malema. His star quality is what gains the EFF headline after headline and his oratorical abilities are what packs stadiums. He is so essential to the EFF that it does not seem that he could be replaced. Even the structure of the party shows Malema as having no equals, with him as the thus far undisputed and self-appointed Commander in Chief, with no deputy or vice commander in sight, only commissars with specific portfolios. This is not safe politically as it might promote a personality cult, which many argue is already there. Over and above everything, it might leave a vacuum in the leadership at the top, if for example he is barred from running for Parliament, that the EFF is determined not to imagine possible, even in the face of the current political climate,.
Looking forward, the EFF will need to choose carefully whom it will choose as allies. Its flirtation with the IFP is really about of buying safety in KwaZulu-Natal rather than a genuine political alliance. The Numsa split with Cosatu presents interesting opportunities for the political scene in South Africa as a genuine left force. The EFF is yet to have a conversation with Numsa but Numsa has been consistently dismissive of the possibility of an alliance with the EFF
The true test for the EFF will be what happens after the elections, whatever their results. Parliament has so far been the graveyard of opposition parties and if the EFF is incapable of building an extra-parliamentary force and strategy, it will most likely join Cope in the political graveyard.
Whatever the case, the EFF has made a significant impact on South African politics and is set to make a significant impact on the polls come May.