Malema's red tide, one year on
A year ago, it all seemed like a crazy venture and a massive ego trip. Julius Malema, expelled from the African National Congress (ANC), facing corruption charges and being pursued by the taxman, starting his own political party? Yeah right. Who'd vote for him, wondered the chattering classes. A year later, Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are firmly ensconced on the political scene and monopolising the news agenda. Why is this and how long before Malema runs out of airtime?
Dr Mamphela Ramphele and Julius Malema launched their political parties through a similar channel - first the announcement of a consultative platform to test the waters and then the real thing to contest elections. Ramphele's Agang made a bigger impression in the international media because of her impressive background as an academic and in the World Bank. She was projected as the voice of sanity and reason in the hurly burly of South African politics.
Malema was just the opposite. He did not set out to be reasonable or to provide South Africa with a "comfortable" alternative to the ANC. Malema set out to rattle cages, challenge the status quo and table a new political agenda. He has done all of that. Ramphele, on the other hand, crashed and burned spectacularly in her mission to be the champion of rationality and righteousness, and emerge as the luminary who rescues South Africa from complete disintegration.
It is difficult to explain to someone outside South Africa why 1.1 million people voted for the EFF and 52,350 people voted for Agang. This country's electorate does not respond to notable CVs and a squeaky clean image, as is the case with packaged politicians in other parts of the world. People who were turned off by the ANC and were looking for an alternative wanted someone who captured their anger and frustration and who was advocating a radical alternative to the status quo. Malema's posture and parlance was certainly that. Ramphele's self-serving actions to boost her ambitions did not help her cause.
But perhaps what has surprised people most is how Malema was able to build a formidable following and support base in a matter of months - out of nothing. To get a nationwide presence and be distinctive as a political entity takes time, lots of resources and plenty of behind-the-scenes work. Malema and his close associate Floyd Shivambu left the ANC Youth League with nothing. They certainly did not lead a breakaway from the ANC in the way the Congress of the People emerged.
After his expulsion from the ANC, Malema and Shivambu actually disappeared off the scene for a few months to concentrate on their studies. Many people wrote off Malema's political career. Then last June, Malema made the stunning announcement that the economic freedom campaign he was trying to champion in the ANC Youth League would now evolve into a political organisation. He told _Daily Maverick _at the time that he did not even consult his former allies in the ANC before making the announcement. He and Shivambu decided to re-float their old economic freedom campaign and it caught wind at the right time, when disillusionment with the ANC was high and alternatives were minimal.
Malema claims that people were attracted to the EFF and came to him; that it was not a matter of him talking people into it. That is certainly true for the most part, as he attracted crowds on his roadshow from the get-go. But it is yet to be uncovered how the EFF is financed - the anniversary rally at the weekend even had an air display. The EFF had high visibility on the election trail, particularly with their red berets, and their posters and billboards were distributed countrywide. All of these are high budget in an election campaign. There are no visible big donors and the EFF leadership claims the money comes from supporters and well-wishers.
Since being elected to Parliament, the EFF's fashion statement has been extended to workmen's overalls and domestic worker uniforms, which the leadership says identifies them with their support base. While they made a big splash in the national Parliament without any objections, EFF members were kicked out of the Gauteng legislature because their overalls were branded with their "Asijiki" slogan. This has given the EFF a platform to launch protest action on and to keep attention focused on them.
Generally, Malema's staying power depends on how much he can upset the status quo. Land and mining are the EFF's big campaign issues but they have taken up other issues that the ANC could not have anticipated would be used against them. In his maiden speech in Parliament, Malema took issue with the statue of Louis Botha, the first prime minister of the Union of South Africa, being kept in a prominent position in front of Parliament. He said this was a result of an "elite pact" agreed to in 1994 that defends colonial and apartheid ownership patterns, and protects white minority capital and white minority privileges. He demanded that the statue be brought down.
Similarly, the EFF has now taken up a campaign to have sections of Die Stem expunged from the national anthem, and only Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika to be sung. Again, it is not identifiable as a big political issue but the EFF looks ready to push it to defy the compromises of the democratic transition. It is as if they zero in on issues nobody else is really thinking of in the context of contemporary politics but recognise how these can evolve into emotive campaigns.
Malema has also set his sights on the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) after the public broadcaster's refusal to cover EFF events live. At the EFF anniversary rally, which was not carried live by the SABC, Malema urged his supporters not to pay their TV licences. He says they will soon march to the SABC and burn their TV licenses. But Malema realises that the appointment of Hlaudi Motsoeneng as the SABC's chief operating officer, despite a damning report against him by the Public Protector, is also an emotive issue and intends agitating public sentiment against it.
In the interview with Daily Maverick last year, Malema said: "We are agitating for a revolution". At the time it seemed pie in the sky. Now, a populist revolution in South Africa is just the beginning. At the rally on Saturday, Malema expressed bigger ambitions. He said the EFF would liberate "all the oppressed people of the world".
"We seek to liberate the world and Africa in particular," Malema told a crowd of supporters at Thokoza Park in Soweto. "Children of Africa, freedom is coming. We have not tasted freedom. Freedom will come with the coming revolution."
With regard to the Middle East crisis, Malema said: "The people who fight with the people of Palestine in South Africa is EFF. We are the only organisation that said the ambassador of Israel must leave the country." He called for a boycott of Woolworths, claiming it was importing products from Israel.
The EFF goes uncontested on many of these issues, mostly because other political parties are not sure how to respond to it. The ANC's only retort appears to be to analyse the phenomenon of the rise of the EFF and contextualise it historically. However, not many people in the EFF constituency seem to care about the parallels the ANC is pointing to between Adolf Hitler, for example, and their leader.
Malema said at the rally that the EFF would be around for many years to come. There are certainly enough campaign issues to go around, and for as long as he continues to preach a radical agenda in a sea of mass poverty and inequality, the EFF will have resonance.
The one danger for the EFF can come from within - if there is contestation for positions in the ranks that could split the leadership into factions. With the organisation heading for a national elective conference at the end of the year, it is certainly possible that personal ambitions can unsettle the militant force they are now.
The other threat to the EFF is if Malema is convicted in his criminal trial, which will prevent him from leading the party in Parliament. This might create two centres of power and tensions in the leadership. Despite Malema's insistence that the EFF is a strong collective, he is the main attraction and crusader. Without him the EFF will lose its appeal and impetus. With him, the EFF will continue to cause seismic activity on the political scene.
If the last year is anything to go by, Julius Malema and his EFF will continue to challenge the status quo until the red tide is a clear and present danger to the powers that be.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.