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A sea of red runs through South Africa’s universities, pointing to a new political future. On campuses across the country, students wear their red berets, T-shirts and overalls with pride. Everyone knows this is the political uniform of Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The red clothes symbolise the struggle of millions who have toiled in the mines creating the wealth of South Africa and who are now demanding economic liberation.
At the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) campus in Johannesburg, the EFF Student Command won control of the student representative council (SRC) for the first time last October. It stormed to victory, taking 12 of the15 seats. Since then, it has won the SRC elections at the universities of Cape Town and Free State, as well as the Vaal University of Technology in Vanderbijlpark.
“We are the party that appeals to the youth. And when you appeal to the youth, you appeal to the future,” Malema tells The Africa Report. “The future of the EFF is guaranteed. We are rooted in communities.”
The party is planning mass mobilisation campaigns to target young people. Like many new parties, the EFF uses social media to counter government propaganda and the mainstream media’s lack of interest. It has its own YouTube channel and livestreams all its events, such as press conferences and political rallies. The EFF is controlling its messaging more effectively than in the past.
South Africa’s youth population is due to peak at more than 15 million people in 2021 (see graph), making it a critical time for the EFF to gain momentum if it is to become the top opposition party and challenge the governing African National Congress (ANC). Of the 26 million registered voters in South Africa, about 12 million are between the age of 18 and 35, but millions are still not registered to vote. Under the leadership of Malema, a former president of the ANC Youth League, the EFF has won over many students and young people, unemployed folks and those who cannot afford to go to college or university.
The EFF and its leadership have evolved since its launch five years ago. Malema began as a rotund, scattergun and foul-mouthed jester, bitter at his expulsion from the ANC. Yet he has always had a strong sense of the political mood of the majority. Today, Malema is trimmer, more media-savvy and has a clear political strategy. His top team – including spokesman Mbuyiseni Ndlozi and top lawyer Dali Mpofu – focuses relentlessly on economic and social inequalities.
From the ground up
“The EFF worked the ground and they understand the power of social media,” says Thabiso Bhengu a former law student at Wits. “From Twitter to Instagram to graffiti artists and painting walls in Braamfontein. Their tactics is that they are on the ground.”
Engineering student Laurence Sam adds: “I find their messaging very strong and they are very appealing. […] They are outspoken. They have been brilliant at Wits, helping students in need, those that have been financially excluded. They really push for student issues.” EFF activists played a key role in the 2015 #FeesMustFall protests.
Others are more sceptical about how quickly the EFF could change South Africa’s landscape and the ANC’s dominance. “We have a conservative electorate and the results of the general election have reinforced these outcomes,” says political analyst Zwelethu Jolobe. “It doesn’t mean that the trend won’t change, but there is very little shift in party support in general.” He argues that the ANC’s current weakness is due to a leadership vacuum under Jacob Zuma and predicts that next year’s election could allow President Cyril Ramaphosa to open a new chapter for the ANC.
Some, such as politics student Litha Nayo, understand the EFF’s appeal but are not seduced: “[The EFF] are doing a good job on campus, especially assisting students in financial trouble. […] They are very accessible. Young people can relate to them. But I am an ANC supporter.”
First-year business student Karobo Morake gets Facebook messages from the EFF. “They use social media very cleverly, but I have no interest in joining them. I delete their messages. They are different from other political parties, but they just do not speak for me,” he says.
The EFF took 6.35% of the national vote in 2014 and 8.19% of the votes from the 2016 municipal elections. That means the EFF was a kingmaker in some municipalities and can cause trouble in parliament. With guts and chutzpah, it hounded then president Zuma into repaying the state funds that he took for his homestead in Nkandla.
More problematically, the EFF controls a swing vote in big metropolitan areas, such as Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB). But that has done little to bolster its national standing. Initially, it blocked the ANC from forming coalition governments, allowing the leading opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), to take charge. In May, the EFF and its allies withdrew their support from Athol Trollip, the DA mayor of NMB. Then the EFF and the ANC teamed up in August for a vote of no confidence in Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga, also from the DA. Beyond these tactics, little has been achieved on the ground.
In the new coalition politics, the EFF comes across as just another party – one lacking the power to implement its radical policy agenda. The coalition administrations formed after the local elections are unstable, making little progress on improving conditions.
The EFF has been winning more support in informal settlements and the countryside, but it concentrates on three big areas in Gauteng: Tshwane, Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni. Bernard Joseph, the EFF’s provincial chairman in Western Cape, admits: “It’s been a challenge to mobilise and to organise in Cape Town and Western Cape.” But the infighting in the DA has made it easier for his party to mobilise on the Cape Flats, in areas such as Mitchells Plain. “We need to take up the issues of crime prevention, education and health. If we do not mobilise we won’t make any inroads in the Western Cape,” Joseph says.
Ahead of the elections, the EFF is focusing on its core policies, like calls for expropriation without compensation to address the inequities in land ownership. “Through land expropriation, we are forcing white people to share the land which was gained through a crime against the humanity of black and African people,” says Malema. “Only death will stop us.”
From the rural outskirts of Ermelo in Mpumalanga to Sekhukhune in Limpopo Province and Welkom in the Free State, the EFF mobilised members to attend all the land-reform hearings. The EFF calls for all land to be under state custodianship, while the governing ANC wants to issue title deeds to farmers through private ownership.
The ANC has been rattled by the EFF’s power to mobilise. And the EFF is adept at exploiting the ANC’s factional and policy fights. Ramaphosa and Malema have a complex relationship. Part of Malema is bitter about his expulsion from the ANC in 2012 and Ramaphosa’s role in that. Ramaphosa wants to see Malema return to the ruling party, presumably so it can better control him. Malema says that will not happen.
Many say the ANC backs land reform only as a campaign strategy for 2019. It finally backed an EFF motion to amend the constitution to allow for expropriation without compensation after previously rebuffing the EFF’s offer of support on the issue. The EFF has been taking the policy lead on other topics, like the creation of a sovereign wealth fund and the nationalisation of the central bank.
ANC chairman Gwede Mantashe denies that the EFF is setting the policy agenda. “All of you are giving the EFF too much credit because noise and practical approach are not the same,” he says. “We are not going to be populist, we are not going to be anarchists. We have decided as the ANC at its conference to put the land question in the fore.”
The EFF’s land reform motion is unlikely to be approved during this parliamentary term. But the EFF will do its best to ensure the issue is kept alive and focus on it as it kickstarts its 2019 election campaign in the coming months.
An Ipsos poll released in July said that just 7% of those surveyed intended to vote for the EFF in the 2019 elections. That gets to the heart of Malema’s dilemma. The EFF is tremendously effective at grassroots campaigning but lags way behind the vote-winning abilities of the DA’s and ANC’s political machines. It may have the most popular policies but is yet to find a way to get the people’s votes in their millions.
This article first appeared in the October 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine
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