South Africa

EFF: A year of living dangerously

By Greg Nicolson 28 July 2014

Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) saw a gap. There’s anger over the economic trajectory and rate of service delivery since 1994. 'Radicals' are increasingly moving away from the ANC. Racism continues. Whites got to keep their wealth. Within a year, the party has been able to exploit these gaps and turn militant rhetoric into one of South Africa’s most important political movements. By GREG NICOLSON.

“Fighters, discipline!” a voice called over the loudspeaker at last week’s protest outside the Gauteng Legislature as EFF members tried to push past police into the building. “Fighters, where is your discipline?”

Groups of EFF supporters marched through the streets, stopping traffic and throwing rubbish from bins across the road. Their leader, Julius Malema, was staging a sit-in with other members inside. “You see what your people are doing?” a protester asked, pointing at me and a white cop.

Suddenly, dozens of EFF members stormed out of the Legislature, colliding at the exit, bouncing off police and spewing into the waiting crowd. A stun grenade went off.

The Fighters were already agitated. They hurled trash and stones at the door. A protester let off a fire extinguisher, covering his brethren in white. Windows were smashed. “Fighters, where are you going?” pleaded one of the aggressors at retreating protesters. Police stormed out of the building, shooting rubber bullets and teargas and he too retreated.

The protesters ran through the streets of downtown Joburg. They stopped at McDonalds and shattered a window. A mobile policing unit was overturned. The police followed. A small team that looked ready for a night raid in Kandahar debated whether there were too many civilians to pursue the protesters in Park Station.

“Feels like a warzone,” was the feeling. That’s until you see images of Gaza and realise the skirmish on Joburg’s busiest streets wasn’t war but a bizarre cocktail of petty violence, civil disobedience unchained, and police who despise the red berets.

How did we get here, the point where cops break the arm of an EFF member of the Legislature because he’s wearing overalls and party members attack McDonalds as though Ronald is the key to the land issue?

On Saturday, the EFF celebrated its one-year anniversary. Its meteoric rise represents anger over the perceived lack of significant improvements in standard of living since 1994, the shift of “radicals” away from the ANC and Tripartite Alliance, grievances with the sunset clauses, ongoing racism and white wealth, and the desire to be a part of ground-level politics that’s young, lively, exciting, unpredictable and might, just might, be a force of change.

“A different baby is born today, a giant,” Malema said at the party’s Marikana launch in October last year. “A child that walks immediately, the baby that fights for your living wage. You must be afraid of that child.”

Malema and those around him have always had a touch for grandeur. Remember the Youth League’s walk to Pretoria, Juju’s attempt to visit the Marikana mineworkers after the 2012 massacre, rallies when he was being disciplined and when he’s been in court.

When his party was launched, it looked like little more than a stunt, a joke, an attempt to distract us from his criminal charges and tax issues. That may have beemn the truth, then. Malema and his buddies cooked up the idea to keep themselves relevant after they’d been booted out of the ANC, we said. Sushi King Kenny Kunene’s new and brief role as a political revolutionary didn’t help.

Then we started seeing red berets in the streets. A lot of them. The trademark berets were in such demand that manufacturers started making them without permission from the party. Not wanting to miss out, the ANC released its own version, making it hard to tell who’s a fighter and who’s a comrade.

The EFF revitalised the revolution, bringing the right mix of aspirational swagger and militant rhetoric to sell the bucketloads of those red berets. “They’re saying the stuff that no one else will,” a friend said explaining her decision to support the party.

In his award-winning book A Rumour of Spring, Max du Preez quotes the EFF’s founding manifesto. “Those who fought the gallant wars of resistance did so to resist forced dispossession of land, wealth, livestock and heritage, which they had cherished and inherited from their forebears. More than 350 years later, the war of resistance has not been won, and the battles that were fought almost represent nothing, because 20 years after the attainment of formal political freedom, the black people of South Africa still live in absolute mass poverty, are landless, their children have no productive future, they are mistreated and they are looked down upon in a sea of wealth… The conditions of the people are generally deplorable and show no evidence of a liberated people.”

Du Preez’s assessment: “Hyperbole, perhaps, and easy to poke holes in… But my guess is that the vast majority of black South Africans would support every word of the above excerpt.”

The party rapidly gained members and saw a flock of leaders, trained in other institutions but ready for change, sign up. The EFF were primed to take young ANC politicians sidelined by the disbanded ANCYL or on the wrong side of factional battles. The party teamed up with the September National Imbizo and gained Andile Mngxitama, developed close ties to activists in Marikana and even got well-known actor Fana Mokoena on board.

EFF came with seven non-negotiable pillars: expropriation of land without compensation, nationalisation of key sectors of the economy, building state capacity to abolish tenders, free education, housing, healthcare and sanitation, protected industrial development, a focus on building the African economy, and creating an open, corruption-free government.

Malema was the perfect man to sell them.

Without the financial resources of other parties, he ensured the EFF still got plenty of press. His combination of showmanship, contentious history with the ANC and its leaders, and ability to stage regular events with high turnouts, usually marches or rallies on whatever issue is topical, made the nascent EFF look like an instant giant.

When over 50,000 people came to the party’s manifesto launch in Thembisa, it was clear that the red berets had arrived. The party went from gimmicks, like donating a house to Zuma’s Nkandla neighbour, to drawing crowds on par with the behemoth ANC.

Despite Malema’s relentless roadshow of election promises and the EFF’s stated aim of winning the elections, the party won only 6% of the vote in the national elections. But just think about that for a second. A party, only nine months old and run by leaders who can still be called young South Africans, managed to get over a million votes, seats in every legislature in the country, and is now the third largest opposition party. Goodbye Cope. Farewell Inkatha.

“We are already competing in the same league as organisations with 100 years’ experience,” Malema was quoted telling supporters on Saturday at the party’s birthday bash in Soweto. “Now you can’t listen to the media without mention of the EFF. That is because EFF is a giant.” He’s ready to save SA: “South Africa is in trouble and we are the medicine to the crisis our people are facing.” And Africa: “Children of Africa, freedom is coming. We have not tasted freedom. Freedom will come with the coming revolution.”

The event was packed and enjoyed significant media attention, except from the SABC, which decided against broadcasting the event live. Incredibly, the party has been able to maintain a disproportionate amount of media attention even after the elections. Sadly, it’s largely been because of elected representatives’ decision to wear overalls to the law-making bodies, creating a standoff with ANC Speakers.

The election being over, the EFF have to back up their militant rhetoric. They can’t back down in Parliament or they’ll be seen as hypocritical. So, Parliament’s now stuck in scraps over fashion and name-calling. On the streets, it’s not hard for supporters to take the rhetoric of war and militancy literally, protesting violently when things don’t go their way. (Though, it must be said, most EFF events have been relatively peaceful, so far.)

The party’s future is still unclear. Speaking on Power FM about a book on the history of the EFF, Floyd Shivambu mentioned the Arab Spring and said South Africa would face its own working-class revolution.

Du Preez, however, asks whether people can look past the criminal charges against Malema and whether people will see through the party rhetoric. “The EFF probably has the biggest growth potential of any party in the country because of its appeal to young voters and the poor. But Malema and his comrades are known as politicians who think they can attract support simply by populist rhetoric and militant statements, and at the time of writing there was little evidence on the ground,” he writes.

Turning their attention to the 2016 municipal elections, the EFF continues to make plenty of noise. It seems to be in constant election mode and the recent disputes in Parliament give the party an opportunity to draw the anger of the ANC, bringing ministers and deputy ministers down to their level with tit-for-tat exchanges.

EFF’s future in the 2016 elections is likely to be influenced by other issues at play. Political “radicals” are no longer a part of the ANC’s broad church. Those on the left, pushing for a more literal implementation of the Freedom Charter, are moving away. The National Union of Metalworkers SA (Numsa) is fast moving towards its own political party. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) wants nothing to do with the ANC. Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi, who would look more at home outside of the Alliance, is a strong voice for socialism, but no one inside the ANC will listen to him.

Before the next election, a key issue is the line-up of the various “radicals” who may come off the bench and get in the game.

Until then, you can expect to keep seeing Malema on your TV screens and his supporters in the streets. It’s the new normal, and it took only a year. DM

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Photo: EFF’ election manifesto, 22 February 2014, Thembisa (Greg Nicoolson)

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