Political parties, they grow up so fast. By RICHARD POPLAK.
So, welcome to the political charnel house that is KwaZulu-Natal. Just this week, news broke of the 90th—repeat, 90th!—alleged political assassination linked to the notorious Glebelands hostel. In the national narrative, the Glebelands has a single grim function: to act as the site of the canary-down-the-mine political infighting that is wracking this country, a bloody précis of what’s going down as the ANC rots and dies. The hostel is where much, but by no means all, of our country’s carnage is processed.
Given the horrific tally nearby, Durban is quite the place to hold a 4th anniversary celebration, especially if you happen to be an opposition party without a helicopter gunship or any deep affiliations with the local political demimonde.
Or, maybe, it’s just about the perfect place for an under-the-radar incursion.
Regardless, here we were: the Curries Fountain Stadium, Durban University of Technology, on a stinker of a July day. The stadium can only be loosely described as such—it’s more of a dry field with a row of concrete stands, the far edge of which was this Saturday dominated by an enormous hi-tech EFF stage, itself dominated by a four-layer cake iced in party colours. The party has become so practiced at this kind of thing that it just sort of seems to unfold, as if by unseen hand.
Photo: The Cake (Richard Poplak)
Much has happened to the Economic Freedom Fighters since they were inaugurated in a distant political epoch that can now be officially deemed solid G-rated family entertainment — at least as compared with the present-day X-rated insanity.
Let’s do a recap:
The party was born in the wake of former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema’s excommunication from the ANC, barely a year after the Marikana Massacre. It was before Nkandla became a matter of national concern, and thus before #PayBackTheMoney and all other associated hashtags: FeesMustFall was not yet a thing, and Rhodes still stood proudly on campuses countrywide. No one had ever engaged in a fistfight in parliament; opposition tactics basically came down to the Democratic Alliance alternately endorsing ANC policy documents, or becoming upset, legally speaking, because the policy documents were unworkable. Jacob Zuma was a committed non-racialist, and British PR agents hadn’t yet reworked his messaging. The Guptas lived and worked happily in Saxonwold. And Andile Mngxitama was still a writing revolutionary poetry instead of parodying black rage in front of journalists.
Seismic, tectonic change, in other words.
But while no one in the history of South Africa has received more free media attention than Julius Sello Malema, where do the EFF actually stand, popularity wise? No question they’ve reformulated national and local politics; no question their 25 seats in parliament have made the noise of 250; no question that their small percentages in three big metros have put those metros in opposition hands. And while Malema will be president of this country one day soon, will he get there because the EFF wins 51 percent of the seats in the National Assembly—right now a laughably absurd notion—or as a result of some tricky coalition, merger, or kingmaking algorithm?
Well, if you hope to own South Africa, you have to own KZN. But that’s not so simple in practice, is it?
“It’s like when we were starting the party—it’s nothing new to us,” shrugged Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, the Fighters’ national spokesperson. He was wearing a cheeky red flight suit number that was, frankly, reminiscent of ANC national spokesperson Zizi Kodwa’s style from the recent policy conference. “And we’ve gotten very good at it.”
And so for three weeks the EFF War Counsel has been buzzing around the province. “Ai, it’s tough,” Malema would say to me later. “It’s always been ANC or the [Inkatha Freedom Party]. Showing up with something new is a challenge. We have had to workshop our message.”
It’s also meant making some serious compromises. A few days ago, the EFF paid the necessary fealty to King Goodwill Zwelithini on the happy occasion of his own birthday. The King is hardly the friend you want if you’re trying to portray your party as committed to ethnically inclusive, forward-thinking progressivism. But he is power around these parts, and standing alongside him as he celebrates his eleventy-thousandth birthday is good politics. (It is not, however, terribly sound if you’re a proponent of clean government, and nor does monarchy square with socialist principles. But we’re splitting hairs here.)
Ndlozi has been given the unenviable job of convener of the province, and he told me that he’d been working the ground for four weeks before the rest of the leadership arrived. There are eleven disparate regions in KZN, and five million humans to convince of the EFF’s merits. In 2014, they received 70,000 or so votes here. In 2016, that figure jumped to 113,000. “So what is the problem?” asked Ndlozi. “Leadership. And how do you lead? You develop cadres. You do that by going house to house. You have to live in their struggles. The EFF must not be something outside themselves.”
It is grinding work, but it’s part of the mandate for the organisation’s Year of the Branch. The party has set itself the challenge of electing a Branch General in each district, which means a branch people’s assembly in each and every voting ward. (A branch, according to their math, must constitute at least one hundred members.) House to house. Township to township. And there are no shortcuts.
“How do you go to a one-year-old’s birthday party, and integrate your message into a celebration. Or a funeral?” asked Ndlozi. “That’s what we have to educate our people here.”
Did the violence not concern them? Malema told me that he’d encountered no hostility. But that can’t be said of the programme as a whole. Fighters have been chased out of hostels, and there has been significant coordination between the EFF and the IFP in terms of no-go zones–in the ANC stronghold of eThekwini in particular. But Ndlozi sees the bloodshed as part of a larger malaise:
“Look, the assassinations are essentially a result of the instability of the liberation movement. They’re happening within members of the congress alliance. But it is very possible that all other provinces get resolved like this,” he said, using the mini-bus taxi industry as an example. “The violence HAS been normalized throughout the country.”
Especially so in KZN?
“Here, everything is a gun fight, chief.”
Ndlozi’s point was that the whole of the country was becoming a violent political bunfight. “We need to get to where violence is a last resort,” he said.
And he and his party believed that everything was up for grabs, including this toughest of prizes. He reminded me that KZN, along with the Western Cape, has a history of ditching parties come election time, as in the legendary flip from IFP to ANC in 1999. It served as one of this democracy’s watershed moments, and it set a precedent: change can happen.
But what of the urban/rural divide: this notion that the metros will go to the DA and it’s fairweather friends, and the rest of the spoils to the ANC?
“No!” insisted Ndlozi. According to the EFF’s understanding of the electoral Weltschmerz, this whole rural vs urban thing was misunderstood:
“Nquthu changed over,” said Ndlozi of the recent by-election flip-flop that handed a rural heartland district from the ANC to the IFP. “It’s a very wrong assumption that one—a dangerous one. That political change demands a certain urban enlightenment. If the churches can reach the rural areas, so can the politics. It’s all just ideas.”
Thing is, though, for a revolutionary organisation, the EFF have some pretty staid ideas about how to win a country. And for all their theatrics, Ndlozi insists that there is no better test than an election. “Even if we overthrow the government with arms, the very next day we hold an election.”
So there’s some hope of seeing Malema ride into Tshwane on a tank?
“With all the limitations of elections—food parcels, vote buying, and what what—even in Nquthu that didn’t work,” he said. “When people are in the booth, you never know the rhythms that beat in their heart.”
No. You don’t.
* * *
With a drone flying ominously overhead, and with a white dude in a T-shirt reading ‘Pyro Crew’ working the front of the media pit, at 1:50 in the scorching pm, Malema made his way to the stage. In the four years since starting his party, he’s earned a university degree, lost half his body weight, gotten married and had another kid. Two years ago he stomped around Rustenburg in a dark trench coat looking like Darth Vader on ‘roids. Now, he looked positively chilled.
With the rather hardcore religious opening acts out of the way, plenty of time was allowed to the student command leader, Peter Keetse—recently famous for dumping a bunch of dead-ish rats at the foot of the Madiba statue in Sandton’s Michelangelo on Mandela Day. There was lots and lots and lots of love for Malema, and lots and lots of love for the EFF. What the event lacked in energy, it made up for in praise-singing.
“Be assured”, said Malema when he finally made it to stage. “Everywhere there is a black person, they are oppressed. Including Oprah. And Beyoncé.”
He promised a leftist freedom, a socialist freedom, which would lead to “real freedom.”
“Natal is the home of the EFF,” he said, because…I’m not sure why. Then:
“We roll with kings,” said Malema in reference to hanging with Zwelithini, a statement that was met with groans from the ad hoc media pit. “Because we are the government in waiting.”
He told us that the EFF gave the king, who receives tens of millions of taxpayer money to run his royal activities, four pregnant cows and a bull. They received a bull in return, an apparently unprecedented act of mutual respect on behalf of the king.
Now that should spur on economic freedom in our lifetime.
Malema honoured Robert Sobukwe. He slammed Jacob Zuma. He pushed the idea of the branches, “where we talk about everything from potholes to libraries.” As he always does at these anniversaries, he derided lassitude and careerism. “We are going to fire a lot of lazy people. Because laziness is poor discipline. Because laziness is treason.”
He coined the weakest hashtag in the organization’s short history:
“We should be called #truthteam,” he said.
About the expropriation without compensation, he said: “If you haven’t taken the land, it’s because you are a coward. Identify the land, and take it.”
He spoke about a land, um, sharing programme the EFF instituted in his ward, Seshego, in Limpopo, where the (white) owner negotiated.
“Good boy,” said Malema. “If you didn’t share, we take it all.”
About cults of personality, he was uncomplimentary: “Don’t sing about Malema,” said Malema, who is widely sung about. “Sing about the Revolution. I am not obsessed with positions.”
And with regard to state capture and the corruption perpetuated by the Zuma regime, everyone would eventually go down, promised Malema:
He endorsed the evergreen slogan “white monopoly capital;” he decried its appropriation by Bell Pottinger and their idiot mimics; he insisted that “Indian monopoly capital” in KZN had to fall.
And so it went. No hard left turns. No revelations. The fourth anniversary didn’t have the Big Time vibe of their signature events, but this is KZN, a place with its own rules. The grotesque ball-washing of King Zwelithini notwithstanding, this was a classic Malema speech, even if it didn’t deliver anything new—because here, the EFF are new.
I estimated 12,000 or so Fighters—or Fighters-to-be?—in attendance, enough of a crowd to avoid embarrassment, even if they weren’t enough to make any local politicians genuinely nervous. (The party put the numbers at around 22,000, based on 15,000 food parcels having been handed out by 11:30, and all 20,000 t-shirts having been distributed not much later than that. These numerical disputes are, of course, the basics of South African political discourse.)
The EFF just had to get out of this event alive, and thus pretend that they’d gained a foothold in KZN—a supreme example of fake it ‘til you make it. But that’s politics.
None of which went any way to quelling the very real trouble brewing here, as the province lurches toward the ANC electoral conference and beyond. As ever, KZN is on the edge of an abyss. This was just a piece of theatre on the outer rim, too small to be of any real consequence, too big to be ignored entirely.
“Tough here,” said Malema when it was done, and we sat in the cool of the marquee. “So tough.” DM
Photo: EFF CiC Julius Malema celebrates the party’s 4th birthday. (Photo by EFF via Twitter)
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