Why Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters could become a game changer for South African politics

By Arnout Nuijt

EFF-Logo_WebSouth Africa’s former African National Congress Youth League leader, Julius Malema, last week successfully registered his political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), for the 2014 national elections. Mr Malema promises to provide free and quality education, healthcare and sanitation, as well as redistributing land and nationalising the mines. Although he was expelled from the ruling ANC, Mr Malema is popular, especially with the young and the poor. That is potentially bad news for business and investors, but time will tell if he is able to transform his popularity into real votes next year.

According to the BBC, Mr Malema described the launch of the EFF as “the beginning of [a] real radical, militant and decisive political programme which will lead to real emancipation of the people of South Africa, Africa and the world”. And “the oppressed and exploited people of the world should now expect real anti-imperialist actions and political programmes which will practically and programmatically undermine neo-liberalism and global capitalism.”

Rhetoric, yes. But Julius Malema’s EFF are a bad sign for South Africa. The party is obviously racist, nationalist and in favour of Zimbabwe style farm occupations, while its leader likes to sing the racist “Kill the Boer” song (kill the whites). Malema’s voice is, though appealing to many among the country’s poorer part of the black population, a destructive one. His rise could spell unrest and even violence in South Africa, especially in the economic heartland of Gauteng. The mining sector, not quite a beacon of calm these days and crucial for South Africa’s economy, could suffer.

The EFF as a party has a militaristic structure, with a Central Command, led by its Commander in Chief, which is of course Mr Malema. He and his close supporters sport military style berets, that make them look like revolutionaries from the 1960s.

malema2Revolutionary maybe, but let’s keep cool: there is nothing new here. Similar radical sentiments have been simmering in the country for long and they were previously addressed by the PAC, the now marginalised Pan Africanist Congress. The PAC won just 1,25% of the votes in the first national elections of 1994 and has slipped ever since in a country where politics have been dominated by the powerful ANC from that very year.

But now the ANC is – for the first time – threatened from all sides. Though, according to many observers, the party may still keep its absolute majority in parliament, the arrival of the EFF will complicate and change matters. The ANC have held a majority of seats in the National Assembly since 1994, being re-elected with increasing majorities in 1999 and 2004, followed by a slight fall in its majority from 69% to 65.9% in 2009.

The ANC has however been plagued by runaways in the past years. In 2009 the Congress of the People (COPE), tried to challenge the ANC, but it managed to take only a small percentage of voters, especially from among the Xhosa nation. But even in the Xhosa’s home province, the Eastern Cape, the ANC remained in power.

In 2014 several new parties will contest the election nationally and provincially. South Africa First (SAF) was formed by former members of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, while Agang South Africa was formed by a venerable anti-apartheid leader, Mrs Mamphela Ramphele. New are also the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) and the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM).

The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), received 16.7% of the vote in 2009, up from 12.4% in 2004. The DA controls the Western Cape province and is led by the iron lady Mrs Helen Zille. Though the DA is often portrayed as a party dominated by the country’s white communities and led by a “white madam”, it has tried hard to shed of that image. It’s a black woman, Mrs Lindiwe Mazibuko, who is the DA’s Leader of the Opposition in Parliament. A black DA candidate will run for the premiership of Gauteng province. Observers believe (and polls appear to confirm) that the DA may advance a bit in next year’s elections, though by itself it forms no threat to the ANC, as it is still seen widely as a party dominated by whites.

The biggest threat to the ANC will come from the EFF. Mr Malema, though highly controversial, is a nationally known figure with the potential to break through among those disappointed with the ANC. His grudge is aimed first of all at the ANC, the party that rejected him. The ANC will do everything to stop him in his tracks. His personal vendetta with President Zuma will add some extra drama to the coming fight.

The dynamics of the various campaigns leading up to the elections are as yet an unknown factor. Will the ANC shift to the left to prevent Mr Malema succeeding in capturing large numbers of votes from them? That might drive a small number of middle class ANC voters away, to the DA, to COPE or to Agang. And will the ANC succeed in convincing the poor that Mr Malema’s message is a phony one? Many poor may still depend on ANC for hand outs, as observers point out, but Malema promises them more. And what if people want more?

The EFF is busy building up a party structure across the country and there seem to be plenty of new recruits, for  instance from among the ANC Youth league, Mr Malema’s fomer political home. But when things will start moving the EFF will feel the full weight of ANC’s powerful election machine. Will Commander Malema’s new recruits be steady or will they run? What if the EFF manages to hold the line and gets between 5% and 10% of all votes cast? What will happen then?

It may be the DA that stands most to gain from Mr Malema’s rise. The weaker the ANC, the better for the opposition. And if the EFF fights all provincial elections, they will definitely play into the DA’s cards. In the Western Cape, where the DA rules and the ANC is in opposition, the EFF might cut into the ANC’s remaining votes and kick them out of the ring for decades. In the Northern Cape, a growing DA and a successful EFF might cost the ANC’s its 60% absolute majority. In Gauteng, it may lead to an equally interesting outcome. This is the province where the DA will wage its fiercest campaign and where it thinks it has most potential for growth. Both the EFF from the left and the DA from the right could make inroads in the ANC’s majority.

If the EFF are a boon to South Africa’s opposition, the ANC will find all the more reason to try and crush the party in its bud. If those attempts fail, there is still no chance the EFF will sweep into power and take over from the ANC. Forming a coalition with the EFF nationally or at the provincial level will be out of the question for the ANC. On the contrary, to stave off a common enemy, the ANC and DA might even be condemned  to cooperate and form provincial coalitions. Mr Malema will be condemned to the opposition ranks. But he won’t keep quiet. He will keep stirring the pot.

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