Malema's greatest test so far
South Africa has a pretty difficult history when it comes to the formation of new political parties. Since 1994, no new party has been formed that has managed to have a big impact on our politics for more than a five-year stretch. At the moment, the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) still dominate. Julius Malema wants to change this. Radically. This weekend's conference at which he plans to have the Economic Freedom Fighters' (EFF) first elective gathering is probably going to be his biggest political test yet. He needs to do two major things: create leadership around him and find something to stand for, rather than against. The omens are not particularly good.
Bloemfontein must have a special place in Julius Malema's Pantheon of South African cities. There, in 2008, the ANC Youth League held a conference that dissolved into chaos, famously with bare bums on display. That conference saw a contested election between three candidates, which Malema eventually won out in a poll that saw the vote split virtually equally between the three, thereby kick-starting his path to national fame/infamy. That conference was held at the University of the Free State. (It took them a very long time to eventually get the money they were owed for hosting it.) In 2012 the ANC held its Mangaung Conference in the same venue. There the party finally formally decided to expel Malema. It was the party's final court of appeal and he lost.
So, then, it's proof that our political gods have a strange sense of humour - that our now favourite young lion is going back to the same venue. This time he's beholden to no one, he is the man writ large, in charge, and with his own party at his back. Behind him, the kind of tailwind that only his headline-grabbing antics in Parliament (and his inauguration as person of the year by Daily Maverick) can provide. He must, surely, think that this is his moment; it's time to roar, young lion, roar.
Except that the stakes are probably higher this weekend than they have ever been before.
If Malema has had one big weakness in his time in our politics it's that never before has he been able to create or even manage a structure that could outlast him. And it's not that he has not had the opportunity. He was given, virtually on a platter, the ANC Youth League to run by his old friend, Fikile Mbalula. By the time he had left, despite the perception of order at his last conference in 2011, the Youth League was in complete disarray. The millions that he and Pule Mabe had boasted about in their investment accounts had gone. Bills had been left unpaid (including the bill for that original 2008 conference in Bloemfontein), seven of the nine provincial structures of the league had been disbanded; in the end Luthuli House simply had to intervene.
Even before the intervention, Malema had battled. He had been the League's Limpopo leader, but despite presumably being able to use the province as a political base, he still had to use the police to oust a provincial rival in Lehlogonolo Masoga. Masoga was able to pose such a threat that Malema used uniformed officers to eject him from the voting hall.
This history would seem to suggest that Malema is not what you would call a bridge-builder; that he battles to manage the internal politics of his organisations. We've said before - but it's worth saying again - that what Malema really needs to ensure the long-term success of the EFF is a clone of Gwede Mantashe. The irony. Building parties for the longer term takes patience, skill, the ability to listen and learn, and a group of like-minded, disciplined people.
Crucial to this is the ability to groom leaders. The biggest threat to the EFF at the moment is that it is still, in the minds of the public, known as Malema's party. Its entire identity is based on him. If he were to suddenly leave it tomorrow, there is a very real danger that it would suddenly become an ex-party.
To be fair, that danger is less than it was before the elections; people like Mbuyiseni Ndlozi and Ngwanamakwetle Mashabela (who was removed by the police from the National Assembly for refusing to withdraw the claim that "Zuma is a thief") are starting to build profiles for themselves.
But now comes the next step, when Malema needs to give them real power within the party. Without that process, the entire organisation will always be at risk. And, of course, the problem for a leader trying to grow other leaders is that there is always the risk they will eventually try to wrest power from you. Think of any ANC leadership contest you care to name, and you can see the risk this poses. Up to this point, Malema has not shown that fine ability required to get this right.
This is also about creating proper structures, provinces, regions and branches. Each of these need leadership. One of the problems that new parties have is that when they are created, people who were kicked out of other parties immediately join them. This essentially brings trouble into a new party at its weakest moment. Malema will have to be on his guard for this, and find ways to make sure people who are just trouble-makers don't get into leadership posts.
The other element that you need to succeed long term in our politics is something to stand for. You need to be about some kind of change, rather than just shouting from the rooftops/Parliamentary benches/police cells about Number One's crimes, real and imagined. You need to have some sort of vision, something that makes people think you are worth their vote. Part of this is also giving the impression that you are actually going to be a winner, and that you will actually, eventually, but still in not too far future, win power in some way shape or form.
The DA has managed to do this. It could be claimed that their policies are becoming slightly less distinct from those of the ANC as it changes and its constituency changes, but it does have a policy identity. This is a difficult trick to pull off. It's taken the DA a very long time to get this right. (The ANC, of course, spent the entire Struggle getting this right.)
So Malema has his work cut out here, to define this distinct identity through meaningful policies. And claims about "radical change" and land-grabs are not going to cut it. Proper policy needs to be costed. If you cannot answer the question of what would happen to food production if farms were given to the poor, you are not going to be taken seriously by the vast majority of people for whom cheap food is more important than history lessons about stolen land.
At this point, he is also going to have to future-proof himself against what will probably be the biggest threat to his natural voting base, Numsa's United Front. They will be competing for the same pool of voters, and Numsa would appear to be starting with far more resources in terms of money, leaders and sheer organisation. It already has structures of a sort in place.
Up until this point, the impact Malema has made with the EFF in a relatively short space of time is impressive. But so was that of Cope back in 2009, and look which hat Mosuioa Lekota is eating now. Malema has his work cut out. At the moment, the odds might be against him succeeding in the longer term. But then again, our political history also taught us that one should never bet against politicians like Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema.
Stephen Grootes is host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk, and the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.