Big Leader’s uncontested dominance in the EFF is his weakest point
Julius Malema’s bigotry appeals to his followers but it is unclear who has the smarts to succeed him
Julius Malema’s organ, the EFF, has enjoyed some real successes. It exceeded 6% on its first electoral outing, placed land reform and youth unemployment on the political agenda, and rejuvenated the National Assembly. Putting ideology aside, it entered into qualified partnerships with the DA after the local government elections.
The EFF also has well-known weaknesses. The party’s ethnic and regional concentration continues to be a major limitation, especially given President Cyril Ramaphosa’s large political footprint in Gauteng and Limpopo.
In KwaZulu-Natal, where the EFF’s juvenile militarism seems laughable, it secured less than 2% in 2014. The party has evidently overcome its shortage of resources, but it has had to compromise with alleged gangsters and bank looters to do so.
The central problem for the EFF, however, lies in its leadership. It is totally dependent on Malema to secure its current base. But the “commander-in-chief” sets a cap on what the party can achieve in future.
Whatever the strengths of Floyd Shivambu — and they are not obvious — he could never replace or challenge his leader. At the Farlam commission of inquiry, Ramaphosa effortlessly made the party’s number three, Dali Mpofu, look like a rambling imbecile.
The only politician of real talent in the party’s central command is spokesman Mbuyiseni Ndlozi. While Shivambu’s instinct is to pin journalists physically to the wall, Ndlozi has some credulous reporters eating out of his hand. Little wonder he was apparently massaged down the party’s candidate list to seventh position.
Malema’s uncontested dominance contrasts with the contested leaderships of the ANC and the DA. As has been noted of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who is of a similar age and policy orientation to Malema, a Great Leader poses real challenges to any party.
It makes some political sense for the EFF to attack members of racial minorities who are not going to vote for the EFF in any event. Malema’s only partly reassuring 2016 comment that “we are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at least for now” may verge on the promotion of genocide, but it nonetheless motivates some of the EFF’s base.
Racist attacks on Indians in government can also be electorally rational. If one has bigoted supporters, pandering to their bigotry can increase the intensity of their devotion to the Great Leader and his party organ. After all, DA and ANC leaders are for the same reason pandering before the elections to anti-foreigner sentiment that they know could cause loss of lives.
What is curious about Malema is his decision to escalate attacks on the majority of SA citizens: women. Bigoted men constitute a large minority of electors, and a majority of current EFF voters. But a decision to alienate more than half of the electorate seems an unlikely strategy for growing a small party’s vote.
When television and radio presenter Karima Brown inadvertently sent a message to an EFF Whatsapp group last week urging her colleagues to investigate whether Malema had any women in his new group of “party elders”, Malema had no hesitation in reposting the message, together with some political innuendo and Brown’s cellphone number. He must have known that this posed a real danger to Brown’s well-being, or even her life.
It will be interesting to see if the EFF is successful in finding some elderly women with sufficiently little self-respect to accept a last-minute drafting on to the party’s elders’ council.
Party strategists are not concerned merely with the number of votes they can muster in the election, of course, but also with the politics of post-election coalition.
Malema and his sidekick Shivambu have already indicated that the EFF is not a real political party: it is an ANC faction, waiting solely for an opportunity to return to the mother body on favourable terms. By pre-committing the party to deal with the ANC only, Malema has thrown away the party’s potential leverage.
Any party willing to negotiate with Malema, meanwhile, will be tacitly accepting the legitimacy of his abhorrent attitudes towards women.
• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.