After its surprisingly strong showing in the May 2014 elections, many thought the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and its firebrand leader, Julius Malema, would implode under the burden of leadership issues, financial constraints, and a concerted effort by the ANC to roll back the party’s electoral gains. Its theatrics in parliament contributed to uncertainty about the party’s real intentions and its ability to work inside and out of parliament without compromising its ‘revolutionary’ image.
The party and Malema have, however, managed to keep their momentum, notwithstanding controversial public utterances, such as Malema’s criticism of Nelson Mandela. In the aftermath of the 2016 municipal elections it might even be forced to consider alliances, if it wants to govern, or at least co-govern, some municipalities. This will present a completely new test to the EFF, and will indicate whether it could demonstrate political pragmatism and maturity.
On the surface, recent politics in South Africa was dominated by President Jacob Zuma’s apparent unbreakable hold on power, irrespective of corruption scandals and his public disdain for Parliamentary questions (and opposition parties). This has gone hand-in-hand with a debate – ostensibly excluding formal ANC structures – on Zuma’s successor. The important 2015 story however, was that of the EFF, Malema and his bunch of merry revolutionaries, as they would want the masses of under- and unemployed people to think of them. Notwithstanding all of this, the real question is whether the EFF has the ability to establish itself as a serious contender to gain elective power in the short- to medium term, including the municipal elections in 2016.
According to the party’s website, “The EFF is a radical, leftist, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movement, with an internationalist outlook anchored by popular grassroots formations and struggles. The EFF will be the vanguard of community and workers’ struggles, and will always be on the side of the people. The EFF will, with determination and consistency, associate with the protest movement in South Africa, and will also join in struggles that defy unjust laws.’’
In the 2014 general elections the EFF was probably the surprise package: The ANC won 249 seats and the Democratic Alliance (DA) 89 seats, but in its first attempt at electoral politics the EFF obtained 25 seats, the third highest number. It received 1,169,259 or 6.35% of the votes cast. This was made possible by the decline of the ANC into a predominantly rural party, enjoying the support of only 34% of the eligible urban vote. In contrast, the EFF strategy was, and still is, almost exclusively aimed at young, poor urban blacks, although it has also made inroads into the employed workers category, especially among mineworkers, partly with the help of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). On a practical (operational) level the EFF is cooperating closely with AMCU, although its president, Joseph Mathunjwa, remains extremely coy about any formal political association. Indications are that in especially the North West Province, the EFF and AMCU structures overlap substantially when it comes to membership, and this could provide the EFF with a huge boost during the municipal elections next year.
According to “assessments” by the ANC and the Democratic Alliance (DA) – obviously done independently from each other – the EFF’s support since the May 2014 national elections has grown faster than that of either the ruling party or the main opposition. Unconfirmed reports go as far as saying that the EFF’s support base has doubled, and it is now in excess of two million people.
Given the stuttering economy, and the extremely high levels of unemployment, especially among young black people, the EFF might well be the party to watch during the municipal elections. Although the EFF still faces a plethora of challenges, including limited funding – there is no specific information on its financial position available – leadership squabbles and ideological differences, it is expected to be a serious challenge to the ANC in Limpopo, the North West, parts of Gauteng, and even the Free State. If not the outright winner, it might garner enough votes in some municipalities to govern in coalition with the DA, Congress of the People and/or the United Democratic Movement.
Ironically, the DA will face an excruciating political situation if this scenario should unfold; to work with the EFF, or partner with the ANC. If the EFF remains true to its word, the ANC might not have to face this dilemma, as the EFF seems intent on not working with Zuma and Company. Asked whether he would consider sharing power with President Zuma’s ANC in a coalition government, Malema replied: “We’ll never do that. We want to destroy the ANC arrogance, the disrespect of the ANC towards our people… We have made a commitment to prove to the ANC they are not the alpha and omega. They are just a political party. That arrogance has led to a point where Jacob Zuma says he loves the ANC more than the country, that the ANC comes first and South Africa later.’’
From the ruling party’s perspective, these utterances, as disconcerting as they might be, are not the crux of the matter. Malema’s threat that no army would defeat organised protests with serious numbers, as was the case when 50,000 – according to Malema – marched to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange last month, has certainly attracted attention. Even more worrisome must be his remark that it was the EFF’s mission ‘’to dethrone the state’’ (probably meaning the ruling party).
On 20 November the ANC warned against what it described as attempts to use the recent protests against high university fees as a means to destabilise South Africa. Its statement after a meeting of its National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting stated that it was concerned at recent events, which it said pointed to the “early signs of counter-revolution”.
Earlier this year, North West Premier, Supra Mahumapelo, claimed that Zwelinzima Vavi and Malema were plotting to overthrow the government. “If you listened to Julius [Malema] and Vavi speak at the Union Buildings, you can hear they want to overthrow the government. They want to instigate people and ultimately overthrow the government. They will never succeed.”
In September, President Zuma launched a veiled attack on the EFF, calling on the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) to deal with the party. “People do things that are counter-revolutionary, and you don’t tell them,” Zuma told delegates at the league’s elective congress in Midrand. “If you see counter-revolutionaries whether on social media or in Parliament you must deal with them. Who must defend the ANC if you don’t?” Zuma asked.
It is clear that the term “counter-revolutionary” has become a euphemism in the ANC for anybody who does not think and act the way those in power do. Yet the biggest threat to the “revolution”, as defined by the ruling party, is the ANC’s conduct and contempt for its own constituency. It is in this context that the EFF and others have been able to erode the party’s once seemingly invincible position. Many of the EFF’s policy proposals have their origin in the ANC and the Freedom Charter, and Malema has simply used the historic, some would argue natural transformation of the ANC from liberation movement to a left of centre ruling party, to attack it and its tri-partite alliance partners.
To call the EFF counter-revolutionary might therefore be disingenuous; the real issue is the growing disjunction between the ANC and millions of poor people, demanding improved, but still basic social services, employment opportunities, and more recently, free (or at least affordable) education. As long as the ANC fails to meet some or most of these expectations, there will be fertile “counter-revolutionary” soil for the EFF to till.
The ANC is often described as a “broad church”; an organisation that tries to accommodate people on the left and centre of the political spectrum. In addition, the ANC is in a formal alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) that, similarly to the EFF, has Marxism at its roots, although the SACP’s interpretation of this ideology is somewhat more formalistic than that of the EFF. What is clear is that the SACP has been useless in its defence of the left wing. The ANC as ruling party has become exposed to the populism of the EFF and others, thus eroding a crucial part of its actual and potential support base. This trend is expected to continue, notwithstanding the fact that the profiles of many of the EFF’s leadership indicate clear links with ‘’big business’’ – one of its main enemies, if its public statements are to be taken at face value.
Although the party is sometimes guilty of offering its policies in shades of radicalism, depending on the audience, for instance when it comes to the question of land ownership, it is expected to do even better in the municipal elections in 2016, than it did during the national elections last year. By exhorting a radical restructuring of the South African economy, and by promising people jobs, free education and services, and almost immediate access to land and wealth, the EFF will continue to grow faster than the DA, and at the expense of the ANC.
However, if the EFF gain control over some municipalities in 2016, it might find itself in a position where it has to deliver rather than promise. Next year might demonstrate whether the EFF is ready to step up from its preferred political space, from being an organiser of noisy protest, to becoming a political party that is willing and able to accept the responsibilities of government. It could be the first test for the EFF and Malema. DM