Daily Maverick

TRAINSPOTTER: Eff-ing in Polokwane — Malema comes home

The Commander-in-Chief ends the Economic Freedom Fighters’ campaign within spitting distance of Seshego, the place of his birth. This is hardcore African National Congress territory. Thing is, everything is up for grabs. Can Malema win his home? Can he win anything? By RICHARD POPLAK. 

Politics, though.

Inside the gates of Polokwane’s Peter Mokaba stadium, a flatbed truck pulls up and men split open bags full of EFF-branded t-shirts. It’s a bad idea. Gathered around the truck are young men in the prime of their life, and the vehicle is swamped as if it were the last copy of the new Harry Potter in Hyde Park mall. For 3.5 months, the entirety of the local election campaign, EFF have been bitching about the ANC handing out gratis t-shirts. (Also: where, one asks, do all the DA t-shirt wearing humans acquire their textiles? Zara?). So here we find ourselves — slap in the middle of Hypocrisy Central, the ground zero of retail politics, during a t-shirt handout.

Photo: After three months of deriding the ANC for handing out free t-shirts, the EFF were handing out free t-shirts. (Richard Poplak)

In the rest of the world, such an observation would be bafflingly inconsequential. But this is the way of things down here, for in South Africa, political parties argue over three considerations:

  1. Whether or not they can fill a stadium.
  2. Whether or not they hand out free t-shirts and grub in exchange for filling aforementioned stadium. (The ANC is basically exempt from this argument.)
  3. How enthusiastically Nelson Mandela, were he alive and willing to countenance all this crap, would vote for said party.

So here we are in Polokwane: another election campaign milestone, inside another Fifa 2010 World Cup Final white elephant. After paying a mere $10 million bribe to Sepp Blatter’s minions, South African political parties are spoiled for choice when it comes to bussing their supporters into A-class taxpayer-funded facilities, outside of which they can throw them Chinese-made textiles from the back of a truck.

* * *

Just 35 years ago, the EFF’s Commander in Chief, Julius Sello Malema, was born in the nearby township of Seshego. Just three years ago, his party was born in Soweto. Some other stuff happened in the interregnum, and Wikipedia ably fills in the details, if you’re interested.

For the EFF, this election campaign thing kicked off last May in Orlando Stadium, a wild gig that introduced us to their largely unworkable, Socialist-on-speed election manifesto. As ridiculous as the manifesto may have read, what most pundits don’t seem to understand is that a reckoning is coming, and whether it comes on the back of an election campaign like this one, or via a mechanism slightly less, ahem, televisable, it’s nonetheless on the way.

And as useless or useful as the EFF may or may not be, they’re slightly ahead of the future curve.

Photo: In my next life? I wanna come back as a South African political rally biker gang leader. (Richard Poplak)

That said, this particular rally is being held in the present, and the present doesn’t seem to be cooperating. I catch up with a seriously cheesed Secretary General Godrich Gardee, who ushers me around the stadium at sprinting pace.

“This is the culmination of months and months and months of hard work,” he tells me. “We met the people in bus stations, taxi ranks, churches, temples, sports fields, shacks, buildings, in the middle of nowhere, everywhere. Now we will see.”

Does he think the EFF will pull in the kind of numbers that deputy president, Floyd Shivambu, is promising: triple the six percent of the popular vote they earned in 2014, with king-making numbers in the big municipalities?

“You tell me.”

Um. I don’t know.

“Well, we will find out. But we have spoken with the people, and our calculations say so.”

Ok, what about handing out t-shirts off the back of a truck? Isn’t that some ANC style…

“Chief!” Says Gardee, thumping me hard in the chest. “We don’t go round to people’s homes to hand out shirts. We don’t hand them to people getting off a taxi. Our people come to our rally, we thank them and give them a shirt, and when there are no more t-shirts, they are done and they’re done.”

Yeah, but man, the optics…

Gardee is done with me, and he’s now yelling at the stadium guards who don’t seem to be allowing people into the grounds fast enough.

Photo: EFF flew the flag high above the hills of beautiful Limpopo. (Richard Poplak)

Then National Spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi roars up the drag — this is turning into an episode of black political Friends.

“Everything I say is off the record,” he tells me in his best Ross voice, a statement I assume is meant to be on the record. The general gist of things: in terms of winning this election, nobody really knows who the fuck is winning what, or why, or even if the most recent poll numbers apply to this election, or this country, or this spatial dimension.

Make no mistake, though: Wednesday either earns the EFF a place at the adults’ table, or it’s back to eating baby food and being strapped into ANC Youth League leather nappies while being whipped by Baleka Mbete in electoral loss Hell. In the last national elections, Malema had nothing to lose. This time out, the EFF lose everything they lose, and in some cases they lose even if they win. They’ve grown in sheer political quantum mass, but have they grown their constituency?

If they haven’t, consider the party kicked in the nuts. If they have, consider everyone else kicked in the teeth.

* * *

Johannesburg: the vast Death Star might of the ANC shoots its billion rand laser into the firmament, finishing strong. (Did the party really piss that many ducats away on posters that make Zuma look like he’s communing with Jesus while high on ketamine? Answer: Probably). The Siyanqoba Rally is, by all accounts, a nice day out. Zuma and Sons have indeed conquered.

Conquered what, is the basic question.

The EFF’s shindig is a more muted, more local affair. Indeed, here in Polokwane, the party feels at scale, slamming into a wall of organizational intransigence that is beyond its can-do precocity. The stadium is filled only moments before Malema takes to the stage. After the motorcycles, after the drone-eye shots of the building, after the twerking, after the hip-hop, after the singing of songs, after the introductions: handouts.

When he arrives, the CiC is grim-faced and stormy — I call this his Shakespeare face. I once saw him lose his shit at a rally in Rustenburg: it was winter, and he was wearing a black trench coat and black leather gloves. I got a rough picture of how many would die over the course of his presidency. (Clue: millions). And so again, I am reminded of these famous lines:

LEAR

Who wouldst thou serve?

KENT

You.

LEAR

Dost thou know me, fellow?

KENT

No, sir. But you have that in your countenance which I would fain call master.

LEAR

What’s that?

KENT

Authority.

We know how this story ends, ne?

As it happens, Malema’s speech is boilerplate 2016: something for everybody. Criticize the ANC for handing out free t-shirts? Instead, hand out free houses, free flushing toilets, free futures. In a moving gesture, the EFF have bussed in about a hundred or so handicapped individuals. Behind the stage, new wheelchairs and blankets await them. Is this charity? Or is it vote buying? Or does it matter?

Photo: Malema’s speech, Red Sea (Richard Poplak)

The first part of Malema’s speech is in Sepedi, and the crowd chows down. No one moves from their seats; it’s like a Seinfeld gig at a reasonably conservative synagogue. He will build everyone a house; he will install flush toilets. The black people of the country will be handed their dignity. But are the people of Limpopo looking for flush toilets?

Or are they, like every one everywhere else in the world, merely looking for Authority?

* * *

I’ve heard the speech — all the speeches — before, so off I go to Seshego, 10km distant from Peter Mokaba stadium, in search of a beverage.

Things have changed in the township in 34 years, but they haven’t changed, if you know what I mean. The place is still dust-blown and opportunity free, although the country’s various political parties are treating it like King’s Landing during banquet season. EFF, DA, ANC, Azapo, independents of all stripes.

At a shoe repair stall, the sign reads “Madiba same day repairs.”

The graffiti reads “Vote EFF.”

Photo: Melding of the political generations in Seshego, Limpopo. (Richard Poplak)

On the outskirts of the township, vast EFF billboards, with Malema’s face smiling down on commuters. I step out of the car to buy a beer and to take a picture.

“Juju,” says a passerby, “Mr Juju has come back home. To rule.”

Give the man a t-shirt. DM

Main photo: Vast EFF billboard outside Malema’s home turf of Seshego, Limpopo. (Richard Poplak)

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