macroafricaintel | South Africa: What is Malema’s game?

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

In November, South Africa’s public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan filed a complaint with the police against Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), an ultra-leftist political party increasingly gaining ground amongst poor black South Africans. Shortly afterwards, Mr Malema filed his own charges against Mr Gordhan, calling him corrupt. Hitherto, Mr Malema had largely not been challenged quite so strongly by those at the receiving end of his sharp rhetoric.

That Mr Gordhan chose to go through the legal route could also be interpreted to mean he is confident no skeletons would be found in his cupboard. Mr Malema and his party do not believe that for a second. Still, there are not many cadres of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party that would be willing to take Mr Malema on that determinedly.

The EFF alleges Mr Gordhan has a foreign bank account – which ministers are not allowed to have – with the Royal Bank of Canada, for instance, a claim he denies. An investigation by News24, a South African newpaper, shows the bank account details were probably made up, however. It reports Mr Gordhan does not have Canadian citizenship nor is he in the process of acquiring one. So, he could not have been able to open the said account. It remains to be seen what the legal process would reveal.

Rising stature
But Mr Malema and his EFF party are having other effects on South African politics. Without a doubt, the ANC has tilted more to the left than would ordinarily be the case were the EFF not gaining popularity. For instance, the ANC argues the expropriation of land without compensation being championed by the EFF was ANC policy from the outset.

Most would agree, however, that had the EFF not made it a major issue, the ANC would probably not have been too eager to follow through on it so quickly. In early December, the South African parliament adopted the report of its constitutional review committee that recommended the amendment of the Constitution to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation. A clear win for the EFF.

The EFF could also rightly claim credit for now free tertiary education. Although former president Jacob Zuma probably did it self-servedly, having little else to show for a legacy, he was nudged along by the EFF’s rhetoric. And there have been quite a number of other political wins for the EFF. Mr Malema did mention before the fact that former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene was not as honest as was perceived; on the extent of his association with notorious acolytes of Mr Zuma, the Guptas, for instance.

Truth is, Mr Malema has been proved right more times than he has been proved wrong. Lately, however, he has been going off script. If his accusations against Mr Gordhan are proved to be wrong and malicious, it would hurt his credibility greatly. Maybe on Mr Gordhan, he is simply shaking the tree in the hope a fruit would fall down.

Not so different
Evidence is beginning to emerge that Mr Malema enjoys an expensive lifestyle. His residence in a posh area of Johannesburg is believed to have been acquired via the patronage of a wealthy cigarrete tycoon. His increasingly vociferous verbal attacks and not so subtle threats against some journalists are also disturbing. There is also the issue of the failed VBS Bank which allegedly implicates EFF’s deputy president Floyd Shivambu and the party itself.

More disturbingly, Mr Malema’s rhetoric has recently begun to border on the violent. True, he often qualifies his remarks afterwards to suggest he did not mean that at all. Still, those at the receiving end are no longer taking his attacks lying down. His public spat with a female journalist of Indian descent is well-known, for instance.

Amid all these, it begs the question about whether the EFF can be taken seriously. And whether Mr Malema, should he get the chance, would make a good president for South Africa. To his credit, were he not of stronger stuff, he would long have been in oblivion by now, after Mr Zuma kicked him out of the ANC. So, he is certainly presidential material. But for a complex country like South Africa, is his makeup complicated enough to manage the many nuances of the job? More importantly, what is the EFF’s strategy? New African sought the views of Darias Jonker, director for Southern Africa at Eurasia Group, a global political risk consultancy.

“The strategy of the EFF is to come to power as soon as possible, and to merge with the ANC in the medium- to long-term to consolidate power and rule the country for as long as possible. Given this objective, their tactics change regularly as the political situation – and particularly the situation in the ANC – changes.”

Since Mr Zuma’s departure, the EFF has been struggling to find a new narrative. And since the ANC has been pre-empting it on some of its trademark policies, and even joining it to champion some, there is increasingly little difference between them.

Eurasia’s Jonker provides some background: “The party was created following Zuma’s ANC kicking them out, and thus an anti-Zuma narrative was pushed due in equal parts resentment towards Zuma and political opportunism that benefitted from voter dissatisfaction with Zuma.”

The EFF initially sought to work with Cyril Ramaphosa, Mr Zuma’s successor. So they did not boo him in parliament like they did Mr Zuma and largely went along with his policies. And until recently, there has not been much the EFF could whip the ANC president with. The Marikana massacre no longer has as much bite since Mr Ramaphosa promised he would visit the widows there with none other than Mr Malema himself; having been accused of insensitivity for not doing so hitherto.

A recent revelation that the president’s son donated a huge sum of money towards his father’s campaign for the ANC presidency and Mr Ramaphosa’s less than convincing forgetfulness in his explanation to parliament about the matter, suggests there might be something to fight him with at last. That is, if he continues on his dogged anti-corruption path.

On the defensive
“Although the EFF is willing to work with Ramaphosa if that brings them to power, they are being threatened by Ramaphosa’s anti-corruption campaign and overall reform agenda”, opines Eurasia’s Jonker. “In particular, two issues are at stake here: investigations by the South African Revenue Service (SARS) into Malema’s tax affairs and investigations by the South African Reserve Bank and law enforcement agencies into the collapse of VBS Bank. With VBS, the EFF allegedly benefited when funds went to companies linked to close relatives of Malema and Shivambu, and then were used to pay for services procured by the EFF or by properties occupied by Malema and his family.”

“Malema’s tax affairs have been a persistent problem for him: initially SARS was scrutinizing benefits he received from companies that won tenders in Limpopo province while he had lots of influence there as leader of the ANC Youth League, but then SARS also started looking at the illegal cigarette industry and in particular Adriano Mazzotti – an alleged manufacturer of illegal cigarettes and patron to both the EFF and Malema.” Consequently, Jonker believes “the EFF has been doing whatever it can to deflect these issues. Thus the attack on Gordhan, Treasury and the SARB [South African Reserve Bank]. They have also moulded these attacks into propaganda that feeds into resentment towards White Monopoly Capital.”

“Ironically, the EFF now has a shared interest with the Zuma faction in weakening and removing Ramaphosa. The two sides are thus working towards the same objective and are likely to be sharing and leaking information that could incriminate Ramaphosa and his allies. We saw this with the leak of information concerning Nhlanhla Nene’s meetings with the Guptas, and probably also Ramaphosa and his son’s links to Bosasa and the Watson family. These dirty tricks will continue, and indeed the fightback against Ramaphosa will continue, for as long as the Malema and Shivambu are threatened with potential legal action. Thus, we expect this to continue through to the 2024 election.”

An edited version was published by New African magazine in January 2019

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