“It’s a gift. These ous make it too easy for him,” an EFF organiser grumbled ironically under his breath as he cussed a pair of cops walking past. The police officers were casing out a meeting at the Wiggins Community Hall, where EFF commander-in-chief Julius Malema was addressing his “ground forces”.
The EFF organiser mumbled about police “victimisation” of the red berets, though the sluggish cops hardly looked menacing. Pencil pushers, he concluded, with a mildly irritated shrug. We bemoaned the state of government in general, though it is an obvious boon for opposition parties like the EFF.
On the outskirts of Durban’s central business district, Wiggins is a low-cost housing settlement where the narrow, litter-choked streets are vivid testimony to the state’s failures.
On the campaign trail, Malema’s rebel gospel is perfectly pitched to appeal to an angry audience gatvol of ANC misrule.
Malema caught a train in uMlazi. When President Cyril Ramaphosa caught a train from Shoshanguve to Pretoria, it broke down. He caught another train in Cape Town and was confronted by activists furious about the dismal and dangerous state of the rail network. Malema’s train cruised into central Durban on time and he was all smiles.
The EFF has not done well at the polls in Durban, or in KwaZulu-Natal, in the past. But they’ve certainly acquired some young supporters on university campuses. ANC members have predicted that the EFF’s youthful following, while voluble, isn’t going to make a big dent at the polls because they aren’t registered to vote.
This line of argument didn’t make the thousands who turned out in a sea of red to welcome Malema at the Durban University of Technology campus any less energetic. The party already has a martyr on this campus. EFF student Mlungisi Madonsela was shot and killed during a protest there in February.
“Yes!” the young fighters roared in response when an EFF official asked the crowd if they were registered to vote.
Malema arrived wearing a red T-shirt to match his baseball cap. His oratory was beguiling, masterful.
The party leader speaks in clever, catchy soundbites delivered emphatically and designed for social media, where the EFF outperforms every other party by well more than a country mile.
He promised free education. He said teachers, nurses and police officers “see black people die daily without counselling or reward”, the dignity of their professions denuded by low pay.
RDP houses were Madiba’s mistake, Malema proclaimed. Nelson Mandela ought to have prioritised free education.
Money is no problem
Budget, Malema added, was no problem: “The money is there. Too much money is wasted by politicians.”
Why, he implored, did the government have superfluous departments, each served by a minister and deputy, each of whom needed two houses and bodyguards? That money could finance education.
Malema was untiring, his rhetoric punctuated by delightfully candid lines like: “Hey, fuck, come and explain what you did with the money!”
The heart of the message was that black people will be “suspects” for as long as they are landless and that the EFF will restore dignity by redistributing land.
If Patrice Motsepe walked into a restaurant unannounced “in an ordinary white T-shirt from Truworths”, the white women would, he said, clutch their cellphones and purses.
Malema called on youngsters to fight for redress “as long as our people are crowded on a train” and made the most of a photo opportunity with commuters on the train from uMlazi. But otherwise, he sped around in a cavalcade of luxury cars.
Students lapped up Malema’s sermon, which swung between promises of liberation and straight-up chauvinism.
The struggle “isn’t about you”, it’s a “collective struggle to liberate an African child”, he said. “Go to school, learn, earn your qualification. You must graduate. Your family and your village are waiting for you … an educated nation will not rely on T-shirts, food parcels and RDP houses.”
The EFF has repeatedly made crass anti-Indian statements in Durban, often collapsing into crude colonial stereotypes.
In Durban this week, Malema teetered on the edge of a xenophobic abyss, making sweeping statements about Chinese and Indian nationals. He recovered minutes later – and then flip-flopped again.
“Stop the self-hate,” he intoned. Africans look like you. They don’t take your jobs or your women. And if you put all the Zimbabweans on a bus and sent them home, “you would still be unemployed”.
Tribalism, he said, could destroy the country. Don’t glorify colonial borders or pick on Mozambicans because, afterwards, you will target Shangaans.
He then returned to student life, insisting that accommodation for Indian students must not be better than that available to African students.
“We must do away with the mentality that Indians are better blacks.”
Vusi Khoza, the EFF’s premier candidate in KwaZulu-Natal, received a suspended sentence for his participation in a 2009 xenophobic attack in the flatlands of Albert Park in Durban that left a Zimbabwean and a Tanzanian dead. At the time, he was an ANC councillor.
He then left the ANC and joined the National Freedom Party (NFP), a decidedly unradical breakaway from the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).
Eugene Madondo, a resident who survived the attack, testified during Khoza’s trial that the EFF candidate was the “war general” who had led the attack and instructed others to throw Madondo out of a window.
The youngsters in Durban found Malema’s pitch mesmerising. Uncompromising and proud, he sticks it to the establishment. Don’t ask us what we will do with the land once it is returned, “it is none of your business”, he declared to loud applause.
Making no mention of On-Point Engineering or the Venda Building Society, Malema railed against the corruption that has taken advantage of South Africans for 25 years. The ANC, he thundered, removed mayors and replaced them with others, “but it is like eating meat from the same pot”.
Our people are dying of curable diseases, he said. No one could disagree with that.
The EFF has a huge presence in Durban in terms of posters and billboards. Stage trucks cruise around the country looking for fertile ground for Malema. The branding is brilliant. There is serious money behind the Son of the Soil, who has so radiantly pitched himself as the champion of the poor.
‘Rebellious by nature’
Emblazoned with the slogan “Revolution in Motion – Vote EFF”, the trucks fill people like Philani Nduli with pride.
The 25-year-old office management student from Pietermaritzburg is the “KZN student commander” of the party. Articulate and charming, he is in awe of Malema, the “mass mobiliser” and “crowd-puller”.
“I get goosebumps listening to him. Young people love his rebellious spirit because they are rebellious by nature.”
Upending the ANC is tough because many people are disenchanted with politics. Although shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo has said it will vote as a bloc against the ANC in the upcoming election, it is common for activists in impoverished communities to simply declare that they will not vote.
The allure of the EFF
But the EFF’s allure is in everything the ANC isn’t. Especially when it comes to students, among which, as Nduli enthuses, the EFF has trumped the ANC-aligned South African Students Congress across the province, with student representative council majorities on eight major campuses.
“Sasco is tainted. They are caught between a rock and a hard place, trying to advance the interests of the ruling party and the students.”
Questioned on the militaristic posture of the party, which strikes many as hypermasculine and authoritarian, Nduli justified it benignly as the “hyperactivity” of elections.
That won’t wash with those who have been on the wrong side of chair throwing, throat grabbing, crude slander and often intensely gendered online harassment.