Delegates clad in red T-shirts designed for the occasion, rose up while singing the name of the man they call their commander-in-chief: “Julius Malema”. They moved to the stage where their leaders were sitting and knelt before them, hands raised, singing in praise. The Economic Freedom Fighters’ congress, dubbed the National People’s Assembly, feels like a mixture of politics and cult, where Malema’s word is the gospel of ultimate truth.
Perhaps the singing fighters were still infused with the spirit of Christian musician Dr Tumi’s rendition of You Are Here, which had them rocking with their arms raised to the heavens before Malema’s speech. Ironically, moments before, Malema denounced personality cults.
On Saturday, 14 December, the six-year-old EFF’s second congress officially kicked off in the Nasrec Expo Centre, the exact spot where the ANC had its big elective gathering two years ago. In 2014, the EFF’s first conference took place at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, following the ANC’s congress of 2012. It’s hardly a coincidence. The EFF, an expelled splinter of the ANC, has been selling itself as a more authentic version of the governing party and this project continued at their congress this weekend.
It’s happening roughly 18 months before South Africa’s next local government election, and Malema set his party firmly on a socialist path in front of an audience that included trade unionists Zwelinzima Vavi and Joseph Mathunjwa. Malema seemed undeterred by the wholesale rejection by voters in the United Kingdom this week of this very ideology, but then, South African political dynamics are very different.
The EFF is gunning boldly for the socialist gap that some in the ANC believe former businessman Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency is creating. The theme for the congress is emblazoned in yellow on the red banner hanging on the stage: “Consolidating the ground towards socialist power”.
First, Malema laid the foundations:
“We are here as the representatives of the poor and the downtrodden, united by our love for our people, and our determination to unchain them from their inhumane realities.” He described how, in South Africa, “the scars of colonialism and apartheid live on. The failure to undo the ownership patterns of our economy and the failure to give back the land to our people has resulted in our people having political rights, but no economic freedom.”
In the presence of diplomats from nine embassies and representatives of EFF structures from six other countries, including Lesotho, Namibia and Liberia, and in the presence of his old chum, former Robert Mugabe minister and aspiring Zimbabwean president Saviour Kasukuwere, Malema went on to blame capitalism for many of Africa’s ills, such as the spread of disease and suffering, and landlessness. “The wars that are taking place are a result of capitalism and capitalist greed! The subdivision of Africa into small incapable states is a direct result of capitalism and capitalist greed,” he said.
Malema presented socialism as a solution to these ills, but said it would not be authoritarian socialism with “forced collectivism” and disrespect of the individual.
“We are not going to dance vosho the same,” he added in a rare off-the-cuff joke. The EFF’s socialism doesn’t ascribe to despotism, a one-party state and a cult of personalities.
“Socialism is not some huge bureaucracy that disregards rights and freedoms of individuals.” People would not have to render private non-exploitative property, such as houses, cars, and clothes to the state, or share their underwear with anyone – another unscripted quip.
It is, however, about “ending the private ownership of the means of production, [such as] mines, huge farms, monopoly industries.” It’s the kind of socialism that does away with private property, owned by individuals and used to make a profit, like banks and factories.
“Socialism to us primarily means that we should collectively develop the productive forces and make sure that all people have equal access to economic sustainability and have the basic needs,” Malema said.
There should be free education, water and sanitation, housing and electricity, health care, and development that benefits everyone – in short, economic freedom. EFF socialism would also include “democracy, human rights, peace and stability”, said Malema. Even though land redistribution without compensation got a prominent mention, it wasn’t a central theme. Ordinary voters, it became clear ahead of the elections in May 2019, are more concerned about jobs than about land – or even ideology.
The congress, however, isn’t directed so much at voters as it is at the EFF gallery and friends/supporters within the ANC. Malema went on to position the EFF as the kingmakers they want to be seen as. “When the previous administration [of Jacob Zuma] tried to undermine our country through the [Gupta] family criminal syndicate, we did everything in our power to remove their puppet, and it is evident now that he was replaced with a more dangerous capitalist establishment, which is working in alliance with all-white political organisations,” he said.
“We carry the obligation to remove the sitting government from political power because they are dismally failing. We send a strong caution that if the current administration hands over power to unelected people, their president, like their former president, will not finish the term of office.”
This threat to remove Ramaphosa closely aligns with the reported aspirations of the lobby aligned to ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule ahead of that party’s mid-term national general council in 2020. Malema’s sentiment that Ramaphosa was deliberately creating crises in state-owned enterprises to privatise them, is shared, too, by radical economic transformation (RET) forces in the ANC.
Malema framed Ramaphosa as part of a bigger problem. “The ruling party has presided over a false macroeconomic policy which was based on a misdiagnosis of South African capitalism,” said Malema, without mentioning the governing ANC by name.
“They assumed they could implement solutions in South Africa that are cooked in European experiences.” Malema spoke in a negative light about the compromises made by the ANC in 1994, and about the “false unity” that followed. Malema described Ramaphosa – who was elected ANC leader at Nasrec almost exactly two years before – as a “puppet” of the “white capitalist establishment”.
Although Malema’s political report included most of the tried and tested formulas about economic freedom that pushed the EFF’s one million votes in 2014 up to 1.8 million five years on, it was the first time Malema has ever positioned the party so explicitly and extensively as a socialist one. To put it in perspective: in the party’s founding manifesto adopted at its July 2013 gathering under the Leninist theme of “What is to be done?”, the word “socialism” isn’t mentioned at all, although the EFF is characterised as a “radical, leftist, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movement”. Even in its 2019 general elections manifesto, “socialist” is mentioned only once, in the intro, when the EFF is described as a “revolutionary socialist economic emancipation movement”.
Malema’s address to the delegates – about 4,000, according to the EFF – was mostly a serious one, also outlining the party’s work in Parliament and in the municipalities where it was, until recently, partners of the minority DA governments.
Colourful jokes like those about Alexandra residents stealing the cheese out of Sandton fridges – first told at his last ANC Youth League conference in 2011 – did not feature this time. Malema stuck strictly to the all-English written script and instead remarked about the contrast between “the concentration camp called Alexandra and the luxury that is called Sandton”.
There was clapping and laughing only when he paused after each section in his report to lift his bottled water with a “cheers” to the audience. Instead of water in bottles – which would have been too expensive for the thrift-conscious EFF leadership – the ordinary delegates had plastic cups and water fountains.
Some delegates left the venue during Malema’s speech to gather outside, News24 reported, as Malema’s speech stretched to over an hour. According to point 18 in the gathering’s rules of engagement document given to each delegate: “No delegate will be allowed to sleep during the proceedings of Assembly Plenary session and commissions.”
Why would Malema take such trouble to outline the EFF’s socialism? It’s two-fold. On the one hand, it would align the party more closely with the ANC, but on the other, he was likely also aiming to create more unity in his party.
“We should all desist from undermining our ideological tools of analysis because it will undermine the cohesion and coherence of the EFF,” Malema warned. Without ideological tools, the EFF would go nowhere and “only be concerned with common and current affairs and issues”.
Malema included a quote by Burkina Faso’s former president (1983-1987) Thomas Sankara, saying that a soldier without proper ideological and political training is a potential criminal. The outcome of the party’s leadership contest this weekend is likely to reveal who Malema was taking aim at with this. DM
Daily Maverick was denied accreditation to the EFF’s National People’s Assembly. See Daily Maverick statement here.