Malema’s presser reveals a party with a limited political playing space

By Stephen Grootes 24 January 2019

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) commander-in-chief Julius Malema during a media briefing on allegations that EFF and Floyd Shivambu benefited from the VBS bank looting on October 16, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Felix Dlangamandla)

It is often claimed, with plenty of strong evidence, that the Economic Freedom Fighters gets much more media attention than it deserves. Wednesday was no different.

To put it crudely – the Economic Freedom Fighters is a party that was rejected by over 90% of the electorate in 2014. And yet, the party, and its leader, Julius Malema, has had an outsized amount of press coverage over the years. The party of Malema held a press conference on Wednesday, during which it seemed to give some clues to what might happen next in some parts of our politics – particularly with regard to how the EFF expects to perform in the elections, and what may happen next in Tshwane.

November and December 2018 were difficult months for the EFF. The revelations that some of the party’s leaders have been involved in the VBS scandal, and the claims about their expensive lifestyle, did nothing to help the EFF’s pro-poor credentials.

Malema also had to contend with well-sourced claims that his family was living in the same complex as Adriano Mazzotti, the cigarette smuggler, who paid the EFF’s Electoral Commission registration fees. But the Christmas break may have been enough to give the party a chance to draw breath. That said, Malema’s performance on Wednesday may have suggested that reality is beginning to hit home.

Malema spent some time elaborating on his demand that President Cyril Ramaphosa holds a press conference to answer questions about the money he received from Bosasa, which went to his ANC election campaign. He says if Ramaphosa does not do so, he will turn the State of the Nation Address (SONA) in early February into such a press conference, and that he will treat Ramaphosa the way he treated former president Jacob Zuma.

It is a good strategy for opposition leaders to remind people about Ramaphosa’s Bosasa money (he has said that it will be repaid). But Malema may also be misjudging the public mood. For all that he and other EFF leaders claim that the mainstream media act as the “Ramaphosa Defence Force”, it appears Ramaphosa personally has real, and strong, support among voters. The ANC’s polling data appears to show this.

When Malema routinely disrupted SONA proceedings during Zuma’s era (and was also routinely removed forcibly and violently, by the plainclothes riot police), the then president Zuma was very unpopular. At the time it seemed that much of the country was with Malema – they believed that Zuma had lost legitimacy.

Ramaphosa is not in that position.

And Malema has misjudged this before. In February 2018, Malema and the EFF refused to vote in Parliament’s election of Ramaphosa as President, claiming that it was a “pact of elites”. Despite this stance, he had to return the next day and sit quietly through the actual State of the Nation Address.

Malema, like the DA, appears to be missing Zuma terribly, with the reality being that if he attempts to disrupt SONA, the stunt may well backfire.

Malema’s stated goal in the elections also appeared subdued. In the past, he and other EFF leaders have made bombastic claims about how they will either be the party of government, or at least hold the balance of power. There was no such claim this time around. Rather, Malema spoke about pollsters who claimed that he would get only 4% in 2014.

On the eve of 2014 elections, they said 4%, why should I listen to them now. When they put me at 9% I’m very happy, you know why? It means I’ve not lost a single vote. I don’t want to lose a single vote. It means there is not one percent who regrets voting for the EFF. But even if I get one vote extra, it means I’ve done what the people have sent me to Parliament to do, and I’ve even attracted one extra. The only loss for the EFF in the coming elections will be to go below where we are now. Otherwise we are going forward,” he said on Wednesday.

Frankly, this is astonishing.

It seems clear that this is a make-or-break election for the EFF. If it remains below 15%, the indication is that it has not made significant progress over the past five years – despite all of the gigantic, and free, media attention. The impact on the EFF going forward, if this is the outcome, will be important. It could mean that the party is one that people can afford to ignore, one with no forward momentum, and thus not seen as a force to be reckoned with. This would not be good for its future.

So does the EFF, whose Twitter account describes it as “SA government in waiting”, believe that, for various reasons, their chances of strong growth are actually rather low?

It should not be forgotten that the EFF’s chances of breaking out of the 10% mark are low because of the problems it appears to have in terms of structure. While it can trend on Twitter from time to time with images of meetings of various regions, it still appears to be behind the ANC and the DA in forming structures that can sustain themselves.

But perhaps the most important part of Malema’s comments on Wednesday have to do with the short-term political future of Tshwane.

The DA has indicated that Tshwane mayor, Solly Msimanga, will soon step down to concentrate on his campaign to be Gauteng Premier. He was elected with the help of the votes from the Tshwane EFF after the 2016 election. The EFF has previously threatened to bring a confidence vote against him. Now Malema says they do not believe his stated reasons for resigning.

But it’s in a Catch-22 position.

The EFF’s official statement says they will “closely monitor developments in Tshwane and when the time to elect a new mayor comes, we will announce our cause (sic) of action”. Yet, later, Malema said the party would not be participating in the election of a new mayor there, because “we have lost confidence in the Tshwane DA caucus”.

Later still, he says the party “cannot bring back the ANC through the back door” when the people of Tshwane rejected them in 2016, and that the Tshwane ANC “is the most corrupt in the country”.

Malema appears to be holding out for the best offer.

In some ways, the political equation has not changed; he campaigned against the ANC in 2016, appears to be campaigning against them now, and giving them Tshwane could be difficult.

It is difficult to predict what could happen here. On Tuesday morning, Msimanga told SAfm that he was confident the EFF would vote with the DA for Tshwane’s new mayor. If the EFF does that, the administration there will continue. But if Msimanga resigns and the EFF abstains, then it may be impossible to elect a new mayor at all, potentially creating chaos in the capital city.

Malema will have to carefully calculate how voters would react to all of this, and whether he would, in fact, be punished for fomenting instability. And, of course, whether he would be punished for “giving” Tshwane to the ANC. Were he to do that, he might find that his campaign is dogged by claims that he is preparing to go back to the ANC, which could cost him the support of the country’s disaffected youth.

The EFF’s performance in the elections is likely to give strong clues as to the feelings of ordinary South Africans.

If it gains strength, it may suggest that there are strong feelings against minorities, and that the EFF’s previous rhetoric against white and Indian people has found strong support.

If it does badly, it will show that despite our racialised inequality and very high youth unemployment, there is still little appetite for a “radical” party. But it could also suggest that Malema and the EFF are just seen as part of the problem, and that the exposés about their corruption have hurt them badly.

In the end, the EFF’s success, or lack of it, in the 2019 elections will be important for the party, but possibly even more important for the country. DM


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