Total Eclipse of the Heartland: The Economic Freedom Fighters at five years old
Well, not a TOTAL eclipse.
A South African political kōan:
Mars stalked the moon. The earth ate the moon. Buffalo City — dead silence. Moon the colour of red overalls. EFF sky.
Yes, but what do the portents mean? Did the bloody moon represent the ANC, swallowed whole by the EFF’s red revolutionary fervour? Or was tiny Mars, blinking uselessly on the moon’s reactionary right, acting on behalf of the EFF — nothing more than a noisy microbe in the South African political firmament? Did Mercury represent the DA? If so, where was it?
(And while we’re at it, is Pluto still a planet?)
If so, was it Cope?
This blindingly complex orrery mercifully gave way to dawn over Mdantsane, the sprawling Eastern Cape township that was once so central to the Struggle. East London — basically Port Elizabeth on Ambien — was bedecked with EFF bunting, all of which pimped the party’s 28 July fifth anniversary bash, slated for Mdantsane’s Sisa Dukashe stadium. Famously, the EFF was born out of exiled ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, whose calls for nationalisation of everything, to say nothing of his criticism of the ANC’s ruling elite at the time, prompted his ousting from the party.
Hilly Mdantsane remains an ANC stronghold, but like everything in the Eastern Cape, it is a flagging one. The setting was itself a statement: we are the usurpers; we are the future; we are here to revivify the legacy of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Robert Sobukwe, currently the province’s hippest outsider icons.
(Nelson Mandela is, of course, the province’s most notable celebrity export, but he barely received a mention.)
And so a party. They don’t fuck around in these parts, and the marshals in the stadium wielded crackling Tasers in order to keep the crowd in check during the food packet disbursements. And while the range of EFF merchandise has grown commensurately with the party’s influence — vuvuzelas! — so too has the pressure. The EFF has always been able to fill a stadium, and there was never any question that Sisa Dukashe would be rammed to capacity by the time Malema spoke. (Locals were dazzled by the fact that 30,000 or so had shown up for the event.) The question now is how big the EFF has grown in terms of active, registered voters. If a recent Ipsos poll is anything to go by: not much. Their numbers suggest that the party can count on 7% of the overall electorate, which means they’ve grown 0.7% since 2014.
That’s so poor it that it doesn’t even qualify as pathetic, especially since the party has grabbed headlines with relentless consistency since 2013. In the Cape Town National Assembly Performance Arts Theatre, in parliamentary committees, in the courts, on the streets, and most famously on the land issue, the EFF has changed South Africa irrevocably — they are without question one of the most significant political phenomena in the history of this democracy.
But while they now have Zimbabwean (ZEFF!), Namibian and Liberian (say what?) chapters, they have not grown at home.
Why the stagnation?
It’s a difficult question to answer, but I’d put it down to a single factor: trust. There is of course Malema’s history in the ANC as a Louis Vuitton-wearing Youth Leaguer who hung out at ZAR nightclub brushing his teeth with Johnny Walker Blue. There remains the memory of his vigorous support for the then-future President Jacob Zuma in the run-up to the 2007 Polokwane Conference. There is his slipperiness regarding his paybacks to SARS. There is the fact that the EFF was financially jump-started by a cigarette smuggler lifted straight out of a local Married To The Mob remake. There is the general distaste regarding his naked political expediency.
But most important, perhaps, there are the laughably thin EFF policy documents. Their Seven Cardinal Pillars notwithstanding, my impression is that very few punters quite get what they’re selling. This weakness is widely accepted by those within the organisation as an existential issue, and it inhibits their ability to grow at an “organic” — not my word — level. (Compare their various manifestos with ANC’s Freedom Charter, which remains a lodestar despite how vigorously the congress ignores it.)
The EFF has insisted on having a presence in every ward in every cranny of the country, which is of course a mistake — they simply don’t possess the resources to maintain such reach. Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, erstwhile spokesperson, has been focusing on KZN, where EFF literature is a tough sell in the face of King Goodwill Zwelithini’s airtight feudalism. Their recent support for the overlord, which now extends to traditional leaders in general, dissolves their bowdlerised Marxism into a lightly-scented vapour: the two positions simply cannot be reconciled.
In other words, their inconsistency has become so consistent that it’s eroding the possibility for meaningful growth.
At five years old, the problems have began to show. Without Zuma to kick the shit out of on a routine basis, the political piñatas have become more disparate, and much harder to thwack. And so, out of the masala of their rhetoric we arrive at the following: an African nationalist radical feudalist Fanonian Marxist urban-based rural-leaning agrarian party.
Good luck selling that south of the Buffalo River.
Anyway, here we were in the Eastern Cape — revolutionary fount.
“I’m very happy to be province of giants,” said Malema, after making it onto the stage slightly before what would be tea time, were this a cricket match. He was not complimentary regarding the state of the Eastern Cape: he evoked a province of mud schools and pit toilets, of vast corruption and nepotism. He promised the gogos in the crowd that he’d double the money they received from social grants; he promised free electricity and water.
“The ANC was buried in Qunu,” he thundered, referring to Nelson Mandela’s resting place. “It’s done. It’s finished.”
He then zoomed in, mentioning a man named “Kobus” who Malema said worked at the nearby Nestlé plant, and who referred to his black colleagues as “k****s” — he promised to get rid of Kobus, or the EFF would “deal with Nestlé like we dealt with H&M”. He promised to erase white and Indian racism, although he insisted that he didn’t hate either whites or Indians — he just loved blacks more.
“As long as I changed one life, it’s enough. We are not using weapons. We are just speaking truth to power.”
The people cheered.
“Jesus has arrived five years ago. It’s the EFF,” he said. “Jesus comes in many forms. We are here.”
He urged whites not to be afraid of the land debate.
“The land will liberate you,” he promised.
“You live behind high walls because you know you’ve done something wrong. Give us the land, we’ll give you permanent peace. Release the land! Let us agree on the land. When we say ‘our people’, we include you, white people, but black people in particular. We want an equal society.”
He offered no details on how this would be accomplished, but the EFF’s position has always been land first, details later.
Policy doesn’t — or, rather, shouldn’t — work that way.
He went soft-ish on President Cyril “Buffalo” Ramaphosa, but rather decried the cabal comprised of Minister of Public Enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, and former Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, who he claimed were attempting to privatise state-owned enterprises. He warned billionaire Patrice Motsepe, who he also accused of being in an aligned money-grubbing clique with Ramaphosa and his brother-in-law, Minister of Energy, Jeff Radebe.
“We’re watching you the same way we watched the Guptas. Patrice — you must ask the Guptas about us.”
This strategy, if the EFF are serious about pursuing it, is almost certain to bear political fruit — Ramaphosa has cobbled together the Davos version of a family-run governing class, and the situation calcifying before our eyes is hardly to the taste of South Africans who don’t count either Sandton or Camps Bay as their primary address. In this, Malema’s fifth anniversary speech was something of a return to form following the Trump-style detours of the past several months: for instance, he didn’t hammer churlishly at the press, from whom they have received boatloads of free airtime over the years. (See: current article.) The speech recalled the EFF in its earliest days, when Malema went after the ANC’s BEE grandees and promised the people the land and everything in it — a concise, consistent message that garnered them 6% of the vote coming off a base of zero.
“The EFF is going to be in government next year,” Malema promised.
“We are the government of the people. They are saying we are scared to govern. We are scared of nothing.”
Again, the crowd cheered — a crowd wrought from ANC iron, where the khongolese has been a going concern for 70 long years.
“Registration is your gun,” Malema continued. “We are not scared of the Buffalo. Victory is certain.”
And then clown-ejaculate burst from the stage — fire and confetti and generalised happiness.
Victory is certain. Such noetic declarations are the mainstay of political bullshit. But at current polling levels, the only thing certain is un-victory. The clue to the EFF’s power was crowded into the stands: their ability to create populist theatre at its most visceral. No one in the country organises like these folk, which means that they will always be useful, and they may very well be useful to Cyril Ramaphosa when the coalition era is properly upon us following the 2019 elections.
The portents in the sky were by no means clear. Unless, of course, one was referring to the fire and the confetti that crowded the Mdantsane firmament, which spoke to our circus-like political dysfunction with a clarity no astrologer or bone-roller could ever hope for. DM