Julius Malema, leader of South Africa’s far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led a raucous event when nearly 100,000 followers packed Johannesburg FNB Stadium two weeks ago, as rowdy songs including “kill the boer” (farmer) were chanted.
The event was splashed on international front pages, eliciting an angry response from Elon Musk, South Africa’s famous emigrant.
But while EFF enjoys grabbing headlines, it is coy about who funds it and attempts to mask the lavish lifestyles of its leaders.
While the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa publicly lists the EFF as having received only R352,600 ($18,400) in the last quarter of the 2022/23 period, the EFF refuses to disclose its big funders.
The party has been reported to encourage its donors to break their gifts into small amounts to flout the law’s limit of receiving a maximum of R15m from one donor per year.
Domestic reports widely claim that the EFF and Malema’s wealthy lifestyle is partly funded by corrupt tobacco and mining tycoons like alleged cigarette smuggler Adriano Mazzotti. Malema and the EFF deny the allegations.
The EFF was formed in 2013 after a rift in the ruling ANC party when Malema was expelled as the president of the ANC youth league in November 2011. The EFF quickly gained significant traction to become South Africa’s third-largest party.
Malema’s ascension in South Africa’s electoral politics has come in a decade when the ANC has seen a sharp decline in voters’ trust. In some key urban cities, the EFF has become a kingmaker, manoeuvring into coalition deals with the ANC and netting lucrative spoils like mayorships.
However, as South Africa’s hotly anticipated 2024 election nears, will the EFF break through the ceiling into the presidency or drown in discontent along with the ANC?
It is debatable whether 10 years of action bolstered their members or swayed possible voters.
Leading observers in South Africa roughly agree that the EFF won’t encroach into the game-changing 20%-plus of the national vote.
The EFF is successful as a movement of protest and demonstrations, says Dirk Kotze, a political scientist at the University of South Africa in Pretoria.
However, since the fall of former president Jacob Zuma, its focus areas of protest have been questionable, such as their march to the French embassy in Pretoria for France to withdraw from Africa, or the protest against the health ministry to demand that they accredit the Russian and Chinese Covid-19 vaccines.
Winning protesters not voters
The ‘shutdown’ earlier this year called by the EFF was not very impressive, Kotze tells The Africa Report.
“The party’s predicament is that their protest actions are not converted into electoral support in parliament. It is almost like having two parties – the EFF in parliament and the EFF outside parliament,” says Kotze.
David Everatt, the chairperson of the South African Statistics Council, pins 14% as the most likely share of the vote the EFF will garner in 2024.
“But this is unclear and would be their very best scenario,” he tells The Africa Report.
Others take a slightly divergent view, including public policy academic Robert Mattes at the University of Strathclyde in the UK.
“The EFF has evolved into something more than a protest party, and now constitutes a left alternative to the ANC,” Mattes tells The Africa Report.
However, political observers, including Mattes, say they do not see them expanding much beyond their current level of support.
Malema is gunning for South Africa’s vice presidency in 2024, and will receive more than 11%-14% of the vote, according to UK’s School of African Studies Professor Stephen Chan.
“He will almost certainly be an important part of a coalition after the elections (in 2024),” Chan tells The Africa Report, adding, “I am of the opinion he will seek the vice presidency.”
The EFF is likely seeing a golden chance in Paul Mashatile, South Africa’s scandal-ridden vice president snatching the job away from President Cyril Ramaphosa before or soon after 2024, says Everatt.
“Certainly (that) seems part of their thinking,” Everatt says of the EFF’s hope that Mashatile stages a coup against Ramaphosa. Mashatile presumably wants to be president and will do what is needed. [Malema and Mashatile] match in having little time for ideology and a clear focus on power.”
The current anti-Mashatile media that we’re seeing may be a reflection of how the liberal political front in South Africa fears that ‘doomsday’ scenario, Everatt adds.
Kotze hints that Malema’s relentless ambitions will present a tricky situation in 2024.
“An EFF/ANC national coalition will be a difficult entity to manage,” he says. “It will start with the negotiations on how to allocate the different ministries in the cabinet, as well as senior positions like deputy president, speaker and senior parliamentary positions.
“Will it also include positions for the EFF in senior civil servant posts?”
There are already calls from quarters like the Democratic Alliance (DA) that if Malema enters the coalition government with the ANC at the presidential level in 2024, it would be a doomsday scenario for South Africa’s democracy.
These could be overhyped fears, Mattes says. “The [EFF] certainly are the kingmaker if the ANC support drops under 50% in the 2024 election”.
Fears of the EFF entering the South African presidency and ransacking the constitution are “the sounds of suburban fears being shaken by the DA to try and get every last white voter to come out on election day in 2024,” adds Mattes.
Everatt agrees and cautions that the EFF can only be kingmaker if the ANC wants them as partners because the ANC will remain the dominant party (if not the majority party) and will choose whose terms it accepts to make it rule again.
‘The EFF is fascist, sexist’
The EFF is still seen by some as dodgy and hypocritical. First they hate homosexuals, then they like them; they are always against the ANC, but not some of its members.
“Voters are not stupid, and Malema turns off voters more than he attracts. The EFF mode also alienates lots of women,” Roger Southall, a sociology professor at Wits University in Johannesburg, tells The Africa Report.
“There are lots of analyses swirling around that the EFF is essentially fascist. They have no respect for the Constitution or the courts. Perhaps their weak point is that they can easily be bought.”
Chan bats away Southall’s fears of a Malema role in the presidency and says the fiery pro-landgrab rhetoric is a careful powerplay.
“Malema has two sides, the more well-known being his often-inflammatory public posture,” says Chan.
Malema is completing his PhD thesis at the University of Johannesburg and has called upon all civil servants to get themselves properly educated as a prerequisite for good public administration, reveals Chan.
“[After 2024 elections] it may well be the more thoughtful Malema that emerges, the fiery rhetoric having done its work to get him into power,” Chan says.
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