Julius Malema. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Julius Malema. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

EFF leader Julius Malema and I first met during an interview for the biography I authored of former president Kgalema Motlanthe in 2010. He was then leader of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), but was not brimming with his usual confidence. A reflection of this was the fact that he asked me if his deputy, Floyd Shivambu, could sit in on the interview.

I found this request strange, and when I later informed Motlanthe he smiled wryly and asked if that was really true, assuming I was joking. Never before had an interviewee, especially a political leader, asked if somebody else could join the interview. But that was what happened. I reluctantly acceded.

However, much more important than that anecdote is what has happened to Malema since then, and what he represents in SA politics today. Having written a few articles on Malema and the EFF since the party was formed in 2015, I have given them a great deal of attention, because they are the most important political voice among the youth in SA and the most boisterous opposition to the ANC in parliament.

To distinguish themselves from the ANC and gather mass support they consciously represented a more radical version of African nationalism

So vociferous that they have turned parliament upside down and subverted every rule and convention the institution had embraced since its establishment in the 19th century, ironically now in a post-apartheid SA. But put aside those parliamentary theatrics, which are mere symptoms of SA’s reality, for a deeper understanding of Malema and the EFF.

The EFF, with all its youthful warts, excesses and indiscretions, is the unfortunate but likely face of the future, which is precisely why it deserves all the attention it gets and why we must be very concerned about what that future holds for all of us, irrespective of the nature of our own politics, and indeed race, colour and class. 

Contrary to the contentious issues that led to the expulsion of Malema from the ANCYL in 2011 and subsequently the formation of the EFF in 2013, Malema and the EFF are essentially cut from the same cloth of African nationalism as the ANC itself. But to distinguish themselves from the ANC and gather mass support, they consciously represented a more radical version of African nationalism from the outset, evident in all their official documents, public statements and propaganda. This replicates the history of the ANCYL  when it was formed in 1944, in relation to the parent body it accused of being too conservative and especially through its 1949 programme of action.

Race and colour

However, as with the youth league of the 1940s, the EFF of today not only presents a more radical version of African nationalism but also places a disproportionate emphasis on race and colour, to secure two interrelated objectives.

One, to gather a greater mass following among the majority black African masses, especially the youth who languish in the doldrums of joblessness, poverty and a host of related social miseries, which makes them a fertile base from which to cultivate support. 

Two, to consciously project increasingly as a more radical voice than the ANC in the fervent hope it will resonate more with this disgruntled youth, to rapidly grow the EFF to a point where it can supplant the ANC as the governing party. That is essentially the strategy of Malema and the EFF today.

It is that same mass base of the EFF that drives Malema's deeply troubling Africanist majoritarian chauvinism (based on the fact that “African” people are the vast majority of the population), which he often flaunts, and is in the final analysis overtly racist. He has made numerous statements that are exactly that, but Malema does not know or understand the academic literature on these matters.

The question therefore is: how different are these leaders from the rampant corruption we have seen in the ANC itself

However, the history of African nationalism in the rest of African shows conclusively that, once in power, its leaders have never genuinely, consistently and loyally represented the material and social interests and needs emanating from that constituency, which they tirelessly promised to do when campaigning for mass support. The EFF has not departed from that script in any way since gaining a degree of power at the polls from 2014. On the contrary, there have been many credible stories in our newspapers of the money-chasing shenanigans of the two most senior EFF leaders, namely Malema and Shivambu.

There is a long trail of reported malfeasance by both, stretching from allegations of corrupt tenders in Polokwane to increasingly credible stories of corruption involving Shivambu and his brother, Brian, in the VBS scandal, both of which remain unresolved. As are the disturbing reports of Malema’s relationship with alleged tobacco smuggler Adriano Mazzotti.

The question therefore is: how different are these leaders from the rampant corruption we have seen in the ANC itself, much of which has surfaced at the Zondo commission of inquiry? The frank truth is that there is little substantive difference.

But there is a much bigger, more important and disturbing pattern that has emerged about both the ANC and the EFF: how they both at various times and degrees use race, colour and radical rhetoric to secure mass support to access political power, from which vantage point they gain access to business opportunities for self-enrichment. That has been the stark and unequivocal reality concerning many leaders of the ANC, and the top leaders of the EFF.

The hypocrisy is even more stark with the EFF than the ANC, because since their inception it has projected itself as the only credible revolutionary alternative to the ANC, with all the accompanying rhetoric of a new socialist morality, and a public image built with that propaganda. Instead we have had countless stories of financial malfeasance and shenanigans by the two most senior leaders of the EFF. That is hardly inspiring to current members of the EFF or potential recruits to the party.

What adds a most menacing and sordid finishing touch to the EFF’s corrosive public image is the horrendous verbal and physical attacks on the media, especially the disturbing and demeaning sexual threats made against some female journalists by party supporters on social media. All of this indicates that for all its early success, the EFF has its work cut out for it in many ways going forward.

• Dr Harvey, a former trade unionist, is an author and political analyst.