The party claims to be preparing to take over in national government and that it has unstoppable momentum, though that is what all opposition political parties claim from time to time.
An examination of the EFF’s role shows that it has indeed changed our politics, in some ways quite importantly. It has certainly reinvigorated Parliament and put other politicians under intense and sudden pressure when it was elected to Parliament in 2014, less than a year after being officially formed; former president Jacob Zuma found himself under a considerable spotlight.
The Fighters have also legitimised a brand of racial invective in which many are now allowed, enabled and sometimes encouraged to use their opponents’ racial identities as a political weapon.
It is not yet clear if this is a permanent shift in our politics and if the dynamic will ever swing back.
It appears that the party’s main weaknesses may be the evidence of corruption against its top leaders and their incoming legal problems, and its apparent inability to build a new generation of leaders which could make it a sustainable force — though it also appears to be the ANC’s problem.
The EFF evokes a wide spectrum of reaction. Some will start from the belief that the party is the only body in our society prepared to take action against anti-black racism, that it will protect black people and make a real revolutionary change to our society.
Others will begin from the starting point that the EFF is not a political party, but a plain old criminal organisation dressed in red overalls, using racial issues to stir controversy while also functioning as a protection racket against big corporates.
This extreme opinion around the party can sometimes cloud a hard-headed assessment.
Either way, it is undeniable that the party has had an important impact.
Ten years ago this writer suggested that one of the problems with the ANC’s decision to expel Malema from the party, and his position as ANC Youth League leader, was that it was losing its “safety valve”.
At the time, Malema was often used by the party to go to an area where people were protesting to listen to their concerns, feel their anger, speak of their problems within a community and then promise some kind of action.
Back in 2011, I made this suggestion about the ANC:
“It has now lost that valve. And as any steam engine driver will tell you, without that valve, you can run into trouble. But the ANC’s problem goes deeper than that. Instead of having a valve, the very instrument that used to cool things down now has a vested interest in adding on the pressure, in heating things up.”
The point was that in every way Malema now had an interest in actually turning the political temperature up as high as he could.
On the evidence so far, that may have been his strategy. He has regularly made comments which appear calculated to sow division.
He said that “it was not time to slaughter whites, yet”, that it was “time to cut the throat of whiteness”, claimed there is an “Indian cabal” and, last week, about police and soldiers in Phoenix, “let them go and find those Indian thugs and criminals who killed our people”.
Of course, Malema was speaking without presenting any evidence.
Even the dead have not been spared.
Last week, on Kaya FM, he referred to the journalist Karima Brown who recently died from Covid-19. Malema said that “When the ANC destroyed me, Karima Brown, may her soul rest in peace, celebrated. Karima said on national TV “He’s finished! He’s finished! It will never happen!” I’m still here. She’s buried. Literally”.
While words inflict their own violence and pain, Malema has also been charged with physical violence. He is accused of common assault for his actions against a white police officer during the funeral of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
His deputy, Floyd Nyiko Shivambu, also faces a charge of assaulting a white journalist in the Parliamentary precinct.
In the EFF world, words, phrases and even intentions that were previously not used in our political discussions have become commonplace. Many people make comments about white and Indian people on Twitter that appear to be inspired by him. Every person Malema & Co do not like is “racist”. Violent threats roll off his tongue with ease.
While our society was always going to have difficult discussions around race for many years, the leader of a political constituency speaking in this way has opened the door for people to be targeted in a particular way.
The start of this was the use of the politics of spectacle, particularly in Parliament.
It may be difficult to imagine now, but before the 2014 elections which saw the EFF winning seats (after its election deposit was paid by the cigarette smuggler Adriano Mazotti), Parliament was a bit of a sleepy backwater that did not really matter. The seat of power was firmly in the ANC NEC.
Malema used Parliament to put pressure on then president Jacob Zuma. Less than a year after the EFF arrived, Zuma, and Speaker Baleke Mbete, used violence to remove the entire caucus on a night that saw a cellphone jammer used in the National Assembly.
Perhaps the worst image from that night was not the violence, but Zuma’s reaction immediately afterwards. He laughed.
While the EFF has been able to make these changes to our politics, which surely is an indication of its political power, the last eight years have also shown some important shortcomings.
One of the key tests of any political movement may be whether it is able to create leaders within it. Without this process, it cannot be sustainable. Here the EFF appears to have failed consistently and unless there is a U-turn it may not be a sustainable political force.
Perhaps the first high-profile person to leave was Mpho Ramakatsa shortly after the formation of the EFF (Ramakatsa has recently been back in the public eye because Ace Magashule used the legal case Ramakatsa won against the very same Magashule to argue he should not be suspended as ANC secretary-general).
Less than four years after the EFF first went to Parliament it emerged that more than 60% of its MPs had already been expelled, removed from their position or had left.
Then Dr Mbyuseni Ndlozi, one of its most high-profile figures, became its spokesperson. He is no longer its spokesperson.
More recently, Mandisa Mashego left her position as chair of the EFF in Gauteng, after becoming one of the public faces of the party.
This huge turnover can damage the party, particularly when its secrets are spilt.
In one case, a former member of the EFF’s Central Command Team, Theminkosi Rawula, posted on Facebook that Malema had tried to convince all of that body’s members to take “collective responsibility” for receiving money stolen from VBS. Last month the Supreme Court of Appeal found that Rawula’s claim could be true.
This again points to a consistent problem for Malema, going back to his days in the ANC Youth League. He has struggled to create a coherent system of leadership that could run a party without him and Shivambu. He has not allowed independent thinking within the party and to many, his control of the party appears to be cult-like.
He may also now find that certain longer-term strategies are beginning to place boundaries on his future behaviour.
When the EFF was launched, Malema made it clear that it was about land and expropriation without compensation; that land must be returned to the black people of South Africa.
Now, the ANC is in the process of passing a constitutional amendment to make that happen. Still, the EFF cannot agree with the ANC on what should happen afterwards (the ANC wants freehold title for land recipients, the EFF demands the outright nationalisation of all land).
If the Constitution is changed, Malema would lose the party’s main motivating force and he could no longer campaign on it. If he does not support the ANC he will be accused of hypocrisy.
Meanwhile, it is not clear if there is another long-term issue that could replace land as the messaging focal point. It is a fundamental issue in our politics. The EFF’s slogan in the 2019 election was “Land and Jobs Now”; perhaps it would now have to move even closer to espousing some faith-based socialist nirvana.
Just as well, as the EFF has not yet made any suggestions on how to create jobs on a sustainable basis, in our current reality anyway.
However, all of these may not be the biggest risk to the EFF’s future. In fact, it is the proven and consistent claims of corruption against Malema and Shivambu, with their failure to help create sustainable leadership, that presents the Fighters’ greatest problem.
The evidence clearly shows that Malema personally spent money stolen from VBS. It was used for his personal gain.
It is also clear that Shivambu received money from VBS. His brother Brian Shivambu has admitted, in a legal letter, that he received R4.55-million from VBS, saying that “there is no underlying basis for the payment of R4,550,000 and accordingly the amount of R4,550,000 must be repaid to Vele Investments”.
The EFF has not yet explained these payments or substantively disputed the mounting evidence against its leaders.
In politics, short-term victories can be important — they keep you alive, they help you to gather support, to build momentum. But over time, longer-term victories can be more important as they lead to proper fundamental changes to a country.
There can be no doubt that the EFF has had an impact on South Africa. But has it actually changed the country in the longer term? That will depend on the party’s ability to outlive and transcend its leaders’ political and legal problems. DM