OPINION: The EFF and the Terrible Twos
Most two-year olds spend their days slobbering on chew toys or scrawling with crayons on crèche walls. Not Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). A fully formed entity almost from birth, the party has dominated political headlines for most of its brief existence. But this weekend, in Rustenburg's Olympia Stadium, before tens of thousands of supporters, the Commander in Chief didn't seem much in the mood for a good time. He wanted to cut the cake, and go to war.
Have you ever seen someone wearing a red beret, a black trenchcoat, and black leather gloves cut a plus-sized sponge cake into mushy fistfuls? Me neither. That changed on Saturday afternoon, just as the gloaming gilded Rustenburg's Olympia Stadium in Highveld winter gold. The image was a little incongruous, and reasonably terrifying. Julius Sello Malema dutifully chopped up a baroque, curlicue-laden gateau - but he didn't seem to be feeling it, if you know what I mean. He grasped the knife too tightly; his smile seemed a tad too forced; he did not hold a flute of rosé bubbly to his nose and inhale the sweet grapy smell of his success.
When the cameras turned away, he glowered.
Julius Malema has much to be angry about. Julius Malema has much to celebrate. This dialectic, as the party's resident Marxists would term it, discoursed uneasily over the course of this weekend. The EFF and about 30,000 supporters partied before a nationally televised audience because Two Years Old! A big number if you're a fruit fly.
A dangerous age if you're a political party.
Danger has dogged the EFF from the very beginning. Not physical danger, although there has been a smattering of that here and there. I'm more referring to the danger that comes from organising people around a bunch of amorphous principles - in this case 'economic freedom in our time' and its attendant 'radical left' accouterments - and trying to hold the core together as the disappointments set in. The disappointments came early, and in significant numbers. Those with long memories will recall that reformed gangster-celebrities Kenny Kunene and Gayton Mackenzie were once part of the fold. Both gone. There were a number of young, female radical voices involved in the party's early formation. Gone. And there were, of course, the so-called 'EFF rebels', including Andile Mngxitama, Mpho Ramakatsa and Khanyisile Litchfield-Tshabalala, who afforded the party some early revolutionary heft. Gone, gone, gone.
What remains is a powerful and growing brand built around one man - a party that spends liberally from his seemingly bottomless political capital. The brand is a war zone. "Malema is like Hitler, Idi Amin, Mobutu Sese Seko," spat Kenny Kunene, as I sat beside him on a panel at the Franschhoek Literary Festival. (Perhaps. But then everyone's Hitler these days.) Meanwhile, Malema and his own spin-doctors have been trying to Dr Frankenstein more of a Kwame Nkrumah/Patrice Lumumba/Fidel Castro-type figure from Malema's considerable parts.
Neither side can claim a definitive win.
That said, the EFF is now fully and completely a Julius Malema vehicle, and that has both serious drawbacks and considerable advantages. The latter were on full display in Rustenburg when the CiC's motorcade swept into the stadium, and the approving roar surged out towards the Magaliesberg. It was a considerable crowd, and its size was a testament to the EFF's sturdy professionalism - for the past week at least, they'd been knocking on doors in and around the region. They have claimed nearby Marikana as their home constituency, and they badly want Rustenburg and its environs in the fold.
(Which brings to mind a pervasive misconception about the party: when Malema isn't on the front pages for banging a hard hat against state property, folks assume that the party is languishing in their Braamfontein headquarters, practicing their evil glares. But as a central command team member told me on Saturday, he was deployed to the Eastern Cape earlier this year. He has increased paid membership from about 7,000 to 46,000, and has set up structures in every ward. Next stop for him, KZN. This post from Paul Berkowitz, South Africa's very own Nate Silver, should help give you an idea of what sort of damage the fighters can do to the ANC come 2016 municipal elections without winning anything.)
But back to the anniversary bash. The stage was pro all the way - big screens and big sound and ramparts flying flags. It began late, as bashes do. First, Dali Mpofu. Then national spokesperson Mbuyeseni Ndlozi, and his now world-famous rendition of Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. Then deputy pres Floyd Shivambu. Then a Nigerian pastor dressed in a shiny white suit who shoed away demons, and said, "I respect this man too much" - he was referring, I think, not to Jesus but to Malema - "God has already selected him! Hallelujah! Put your hands together for Christ!" Then three, count 'em, three praise singers.
Then Julius Malema.
"We have gathered here to celebrate the birth and the life of the biggest left political movement in Africa," said Malema, when he was done with the usual introductory exhortations. "They said we would never last. But instead, the EFF is living and growing at unimaginable speed. They said we wouldn't pass the first test, that of electing leadership. But we have elected our leadership unopposed."
(Um… not exactly. The party's first national people's assembly in Mangaung last December was not a pleasant affair. Although the process was open, it was also clear that the names on the electoral list were vetted and approved by you-know-who. The EFF survived this process because those who didn't like it weren't bare-knuckle political brawlers, and were too weak to do anything about it. It was the moment when the party's identity became perfectly clear: Team Malema, or Team See You Later.)
So what, then, was this anniversary speech really about? Malema is not an expert in dog whistle politics, or if he is, he's so proficient that no one has yet registered the sine waves. He's more of a French horn. So he blasted away at local politicians - "The people are harassed by ANC counselors who demand money and sex for jobs and houses." He laid down the Pan-African law - "we are fighting for the unity of the African continent." He promised a different style of politics - "After years of boring and sleeping politicians, the EFF has arrived!" He promised to continue the EFF "land occupations" that have sprung up around the country. He promised to continue and sharpen affirmative action. He swore that Pick n Pay and Shoprite would stop using labour brokers - "We will have no choice but to shut you down."
He told fired Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi and Numsa boss Irwin Jim to get their shit together. He reminded the audience that South African Communist Party leader Blade Nzimande had told the Young Communist League to 'kill' the EFF; he called Blade a drunkard and a nobody. (A recent EFF press release read BLADE IS A SELF HATING BLACK PSEUDO COMMUNIST DWARF, and Shivambu continued and sharpened the dialectic in the _Sunday Independent _this weekend.) He didn't bother much with the presidential palace in Nkandla now that he owns the story, and even President Zuma's ex-disgraced spokesperson Mac Maharaj - Mac Freaking Maharaj - is on the PayBackTheMoney bandwagon. Malema repeatedly kicked Cyril Ramaphosa in the proverbial groin. And he kicked Eskom in the ass.
Then he got angry.
It's funny, but Malema's oratory hits full boil over two issues: the ANC government's killing of black humans. And indolence or misbehaviour within the EFF. There's a fair bit of the former to complain about. And there's apparently a fair bit of the latter, too. He told the crowd that two members of the CCT had not down any work on the ground prior to the anniversary event, and had just shown up on the day and sucked up the plaudits. "We do not want celebrities," roared the celebrity. "We do not want lazy leaders. No one should feel proud to arrive at an EFF and wave."
He leaned forward into the mike and raised his finger skyward.
"We are not friends. We do not know each other here. We were brought together by the EFF. We are not friends."
"Yoh!" said the woman in front of me. I couldn't have agreed more. The man is a disciplinarian.
After this flogging, he piled back into the ANC. "It is not the ANC of Mandela. This is the ANC of Marthinus van Schalkwyk. The National Party went into the ANC - this is the regime we fought against. They must leave Mandela to rest in peace. They must go around saying they are the party of Zuma, not of Mandela."
He assured the crowd that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was a firm backer of the EFF brand, even if she would be buried in ANC colours. He said that he picked his own wife because she was a sort of Winnie avatar - a strong black woman of the revolutionary cast.
He wrapped it up in an hour and fifteen minutes - Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi for the Age of Twitter. It was one of his odder speeches, slightly off, a darker cast to it than one would have expected for the anniversary bash of a party that was once seen as a joke, a jape, a desperate ploy by a desperate, washed-up ANC insider.
As I mentioned earlier, on stage during the cake cutting, Malema looked grim. Just ask a two year old - two is a tough age. The memory of the womb is all but dissipated. The world has closed in, and it's full of two year olds. What was a dim suspicion has been repeatedly confirmed - life is tough. The EFF now has to focus on the coming municipal elections, and they have to claim wards. Anything less will make them seem, well, a bit silly. And they no longer have the benefit of surprise.
Perhaps that's why the usual EFF exuberance wasn't quite there on Saturday in Rustenburg. No more pretending. This is the Julius Malema show, and it's all on him. The party is over. And the party has properly begun.