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The Fightback: Is the resistance Julius Malema’s path to the Presidency? 


Ferial Haffajee is Daily Maverick Associate Editor. In her long and storied career, she has been editor-in-chief of both City Press and Mail & Guardian.

In 18 months, the fightback against the reformist administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa has grown from a whimper to a bang.  

The Fightback is ever-present and is now a named political phenomenon.  Each week it takes a different shape in the political drama that has engulfed the era of reform meant to return South Africa onto a growth path to achieve the vision of social justice in the Constitution.

This week, that drama is the war between ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule and the NEC member and former Cabinet minister Derek Hanekom. Last month it was a sortie on the SA Reserve Bank engineered by Magashule who took control of the ANC’s media machine to miscommunicate a party resolution on the central bank.

Next week, it will be something else that distracts from reform and policy-making.

The fightback has an undergirding power and that chassis is provided by Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane. For all of 2019, the Public Protector has investigated and made adverse reports on the SA Revenue Service (SARS), Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan and last week, she landed a bombshell report into Ramaphosa, finding that he had misled parliament and had violated the Executive Ethics Code in relation to a R500,000 donation from Bosasa to his campaign.  

The fightback is now being staged across institutions (the Public Protector; the SA Revenue Services; parts of the National Prosecuting Authority), and across political parties – the EFF and the governing ANC. It is targeted at the two places where the reform initiative is most powerful – the Presidency and the Department of Public Enterprises where Gordhan has moved quickly to reform corruption-addled state-owned companies.

Eskom, Transnet, Denel and SAA were at the epicentre of the state capture project engineered by the Gupta family and run in cahoots with their patron, former President Jacob Zuma. 

EFF at forefront of the Fightback 

From being the party that coined the tagline “Pay back the money” in relation to Zuma’s illegal expenditure on his personal estate at Nkandla, the EFF also successfully petitioned the Constitutional Court to make a ringing finding about the legal sanctity of Public Protector findings. That case was in relation to former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s report on the Nkandla spending called Secure in Comfort.

Now the EFF is front and centre of the fightback campaign. It is a co-complainant in the key reports that Mkhwebane has made in relation to SARS, Ramaphosa and Gordhan. The party has fronted campaigns against the appointment of a new SARS commissioner, Edward Kieswetter, who took over from Tom Moyane, who was ousted by Ramaphosa after a damning finding by retired judge Robert Nugent into tax administration. On Thursday 25 July, Mkhwebane’s office confirmed an investigation into the appointment of Kieswetter. 

The EFF is also at war against Ramaphosa and its online trolling army has turned him into a permanent whipping boy on Twitter and other social media platforms.  

The start-up party which turned six years old this month has tacitly allied with fightback forces in the ANC, whether formally or informally. Using the twin battering rams of land expropriation without compensation and the nationalisation of the Reserve Bank, the two march in political lock-step, revealing a nascent alliance likely to firm up and be made more public as the fightback becomes more brazen and even louder. On social media this week, EFF deputy president Floyd Shivambu used the same words (“charlatan”, “wedge driver”) to describe Hanekom that Magashule did.

Magashule’s game-plan seems more transactional: he has a powerful role as general-secretary but with investigations into his time as Free State premier now in motion at both the Special Investigating Unit and the Zondo commission of inquiry, he has to protect his access to patronage and wealth-building.

Other adjuncts of the fightback include marginalised factions of intelligence, possibly the Gupta patronage network which has a kitty of hundreds of millions to fund the campaign and then Zuma and Moyane both of whom are being helped to run popular and revisionist social media feeds, largely on Twitter. These alliances appear tactical and informal rather than highly organised at present. 

Malema wants the Union Buildings

Here’s what I think is happening. While the EFF’s war against SARS can be explained by the party using its megaphone to protect its patrons like cigarette manufacturer Adriano Mazzotti who is in SARS’s cross-hairs, there must be more.  

Malema wants to be South Africa’s president. At EFF functions he attends with his wife, Mantwa, they are treated like a head of state with his first lady and project the image of that ambition. He is called “commander-in-chief”, a nomenclature usually held by a head of state. A charismatic politician with the gift of the gab and a wildly popular (or populist) touch, Malema has realised something.  

That realisation lies in the outcome of the 2019 election.  The EFF was a gainer (along with the Freedom Front Plus) while the ANC and the DA ran disappointing races. But even with growth of 30% to an 11% total of the electoral pie, Malema was unhappy. He complained as the results came out that “fighters” – the EFF term for its grassroots activists – had not worked hard enough. The EFF ran a campaign as lavish, sophisticated and national as the ANC’s. Why was Malema still unhappy?  

The young man is impatient to be President of South Africa and joining the fightback is his way back in.

If the EFF growth trajectory continues as it has and it gains 30% in the next election, that will take the party to a 15% victory. Even if he doubles that in the next election, it’s not a majority needed to make the EFF the governing party. An easy Plan B is to use his power and his pedestal to join the fightback against Ramaphosa’s reform, reverse his fighters back into the ANC and then race for the party presidency.

An outlandish thought? Perhaps. But Malema has far more brand recognition within the ANC, even, than the deputy president DD Mabuza who is a political nonentity outside of the governing party. Magashule is powerful within the ANC, but only in some provinces like his provincial stronghold of the Free State but he lacks the political character to become a president of the party. 

It would not be easy but neither would it be impossible for Malema to take a stab at the ANC presidency to win its next elective conference. He understands the party’s systems and how to bet and roll the dice at its elective conferences.  

Chaos, for that is what the body politic now feels like, serves the fightback because it distracts from the reform initiatives across the state and it chokes growth because the needle on business confidence is not moving as the country still seems unstable. The EFF are the past-masters of chaos politics as they have shown at parliament, outside the Zondo commission of inquiry in November 2018 and on scores of shop-floors where they grow their support by acting as a quasi-trade union.

The EFF is better served by a low-growth economy with high unemployment because constituencies of pain flock to its outlandish promises; and it is also served by a flourishing illicit economy from which the party can extract protection rents to fund its campaigns.


This kind of analysis of the fightback may well be dismissed for the more standard view that it is about the self-immolation of the ANC or simply as an intra-ANC fight. That may well be correct, but it does not explain the EFF role in the fightback adequately and neither does it locate what is happening not as a fight but as a political strategy for power. DM



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