“Honorable Malema, welcome to this House…It will be a tough place for you”: The Economic Freedom Fighters and the threat to ANC hegemony in South Africa

Julius Malema,leader of the EFF Photo courtesy buzzsouthafrica.com
Julius Malema,leader of the EFF
Photo courtesy buzzsouthafrica.com

By Sarah Lockwood

The media flurry that has surrounded Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) since their inception has often presented them as a serious threat to ANC hegemony in South Africa. But, while the EFF has the potential to present the greatest electoral threat that the ANC has ever faced, they are currently held back by their limited policy development and choice of unconventional political tactics.

On 31 March 2015, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan made history when he telephoned his rival, Muhammadu Buhari, to concede defeat in the country’s presidential elections. In the days that followed, newspapers around the world published numerous articles praising Jonathan’s peaceful concession, suggesting that this event might be the beginning of something bigger – a continent-wide challenge to entrenched-party rule. If Nigeria, with its history of coups and bloody battles for governmental control, could engage in its first peaceful democratic transition, the articles argued, then perhaps the time is right for the same thing to happen elsewhere.

Among those suggesting that the Nigerian experience might hold important lessons for other African countries was the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a South African political party launched in 2013 by former African National Congress (ANC) Youth League president, Julius Malema. A press release, issued by the party on 1 April, congratulated the Nigerian people for voting a sitting government out of office and suggested that the action carried “a lot of lessons and inspiration for South Africa and the rest of the continent.”(2)

The fact that Malema and the EFF would like to see the ANC voted out of office is, of course, not particularly surprising. They are a competing party with strong political ambitions, launched after Malema was expelled from the ANC for undermining party leadership, sowing division in the party and bringing the party into disrepute. In addition, the media flurry that has surrounded the EFF ever since their launch in July 2013 has often presented them as one of the most, if not the most, serious threat to ANC hegemony in the country. But to what extent does the EFF really present a challenge to ANC rule? And would they truly be able to take over the reins of power if the ANC were removed in a democratic election?

The numbers

From purely a numbers point of view it is certainly not the case that the EFF currently presents a significant electoral challenge to the ANC but they do have huge potential in this regard. The ANC has routinely won over 60% of the national vote since the country’s first democratic election in 1994 and, although its support has declined somewhat, experts believe it is likely to continue to dominate elections for several years.(3) Nonetheless, the EFF was launched just one year before the 2014 elections and managed to garner a little over 6% of the national vote in that time, making it the third largest party in parliament on its first showing. The party ahead of it, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has made some electoral gains since it became the official opposition in 1999, but still struggles to overcome perceptions that it is primarily a “white” party. This has made it difficult for the DA to gain support among poor black South Africans – a key constituency in the country, and the one from which the EFF draws most of its support. Given the size of this constituency, the EFF has a far larger pool of potential supporters than the DA, and if the EFF can continue to draw members of this group away from the ANC, it has the potential to leapfrog over the DA and to become a significant player in the future of South Africa.(4) In addition, by choosing to target the youth of South Africa along with the poor, the EFF has tapped into two large groups known to be disappointed with ANC performance, and if they can capitalise on this and hold together as a party, they could even provide the first real challenge to ANC hegemony.

The policies

In order to increase its vote share, however, the EFF will have to become more than the one-issue party it often seems to be. From the moment of its founding, much of its political activity has centred around its demand that President Jacob Zuma pay back the taxpayer money used to fund extensive renovations to his private home in Nkandla. Many of the EFF’s most publicised activities – such as their expulsion from parliament during Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address in February 2015 for disrupting proceedings – have focused on this issue, and it also forms the core of most EFF speeches and rallies.(5) On its own, however, this issue is not enough to seriously challenge the ANC at an electoral level, and does little to present the party as a serious alternative. This is especially the case as Malema’s allegations of corruption in this regard have been widely seen as hypocritical given his own trial and the accusations he faces of fraud, racketeering and money-laundering. To really become the serious threat to the ANC they would like to be, it is essential that the EFF move away from this one-issue image and develop a more serious and robust policy platform. Only by doing this will they be able to attract all those frustrated with the ANC, rather than just a narrow selection; and such a move would also enable the party to be seen as more than simply a useful tool to hold the government to account.

The tactics

Another factor limiting the ability of the EFF to present itself as a genuine alternative to the ANC, ready and able to take over the reins of government, has been the political tactics that the EFF has chosen to utilise. Since its launch in 2013, the EFF has been a very disruptive group, holding protests and rallies, being thrown out of parliament, defacing statues and calling for land invasions by the homeless. Although this has garnered them a lot of attention and publicity, and undoubtedly some support, it has also led to their portrayal in the media as a group of rabble-rousers and stunt-pullers rather than a serious political party. A recent study of South African youth (a key EFF support group), for example, shows that while these youth are “amused and entertained by the political spectacle” of parliamentary politics in the age of the EFF, they feel it is “not going anywhere,” still see loyalty to the ANC as the best way to get jobs, and feel no politicians offer the change they really want in their lives.(6) Although the more radical of the EFF supporters may enjoy their disruptive tactics, therefore, it limits their broader appeal, turning away those in society who would like change, but who would prefer that change to come in the form of new policies and their serious implementation, rather than violence and disruption. A change in tactics could, therefore, attract a much larger group of supporters and thus significantly improve the likelihood of the EFF becoming a serious political force in South Africa.

The infighting

Finally, although their uniform of red overalls and hats may give them a superficially united appearance, the EFF is a party that has been riven by internal factions and ideological disagreement from the very beginning – perhaps the biggest challenge it faces in trying to establish itself as a serious electoral contender. What unified the members of the EFF in the first place was disaffection with the policies and track taken by the ruling ANC, and a belief that more needed to be done to represent the poor majority. Beyond a shared desire for political change, however, stand three distinct ideological groupings: supporters of the Black Consciousness political tradition,(7) a disaffected leftist fringe of the ANC, and a more radical left group who seek (among other things) extensive land redistribution and the nationalization of big mining companies and the banks. The EFF thus incorporates two of the dominant black political traditions in South Africa – the chartism of the ANC and Black Consciousness – and Marxist-Leninist and Fanonian schools of thought. This is a very broad church, and a need to keep all members united seems to have led to the policy-light approach discussed above combined with a very autocratic, militant leadership style, which seeks to quash internal dissent and paint those who disagree with Malema as disloyal rebels. This has led, on numerous occasions, to splits and resignations within the party, and rumblings of discontent continue to threaten party solidarity and prevent the development of a full, coherent policy platform.(8) A new approach to party solidarity – one that allows discontent to be expressed and substantive policies to be developed – is therefore necessary if the EFF is to become a serious player in South African politics.

The potential

While the EFF has the potential to present the greatest electoral threat that the ANC has ever faced, they are currently held back by their limited policy development and choice of unconventional political tactics. The key issue for the future, therefore, is whether the EFF can establish itself as a more coherent, unified, policy-focused party, with tactics that present them as a serious alternative to the ANC rather than simply as rabble-rousers. How it deals with internal ructions and factions will be particularly key in this regard, and if the party cannot deal with these more productively than at present (where anything not sanctioned by the leader is condemned noisily by the rank-and-file) it is likely to implode, leaving behind little but noisy rhetoric and vague memories of MPs in red berets and overalls.

Although the EFF likes to see itself as a viable alternative to Zuma’s government and the media often supports this idea that it presents a serious challenge to ANC hegemony, the reality is that its limited policy development, unconventional tactics and inability to deal with internal ructions and factions in a productive way severely limits its power. Without a radical strategic overhaul and the development of a better-known and more serious policy platform, the EFF will never attract the large numbers of supporters it needs to make serious inroads into the ANC hold on power. And without finding a more productive way to deal with its own internal differences it may very well simply implode before it even really makes it out of the starting gate. This has been the fate of the other ANC breakaway parties – such as the Congress of the People and Agang South Africa – and at present there is little to suggest that the EFF is going to be any different.


(1) By Sarah J. Lockwood. Contact Sarah through IOA’s South African office (info@inonafrica.com).This paper was developed with the assistance of Kyle Hiebert. Edited by Liezl Stretton. Web Publications Manager: Claire Furphy.
(2) ‘The EFF congratulates the Nigerians on successful presidential elections’, EFF, 1 April 2015, http://effighters.org.za.
(3) Onishi, N., ‘After shift in Nigeria, entrenched-party rule faces test elsewhere in Africa’, New York Times, 4 April 2015, http://www.nytimes.com.
(4) Van Onselen, G., ‘Malema’s Freedom Fighters: Goodbye right wing, hello left’, Business Day, 15 July 2013, http://www.bdlive.co.za.
(5) For a more detailed account of this effect, see ‘EFF thrown out for disrupting Sona, DA walks out’, Mail and Guardian, 12 February 2015,http://mg.co.za.
(6) Booysen, S., ‘Beyond the miracle – disillusion’, Sunday Independent, 5 April 2015, http://www.iol.co.za.
(7) The Black Consciousness Movement was an anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa that emphasized psychological liberation as a central part of black liberation. For more information, see ‘Defining Black Consciousness’, South African History Online, http://www.sahistory.org.za.
(8) Grootes, S., ‘Gauteng EFF leader resigns citing lack of debate in the organization’, Eyewitness News, 18 March 2015, http://ewn.co.za.