The real agenda of Julius Malema, and the Economic Freedom Fighters party he leads, has long been a mystery. Throughout his eventful career he has changed tack on several issues, not least his support and then disgust for Jacob Zuma. Over the last few days he has managed to once again be the very centre of political attention, after convincing, or forcing, the ANC to back his motion to change the Constitution to expropriate land without compensation.
Then, flushed with victory, he claimed he was going to remove the DA from power in Nelson Mandela Bay, and possibly other metros. He revels in the position of kingmaker. But in a realpolitik world his position is increasingly precarious, and the good options are fewer than it would seem to an outside observer.
For a group of people who claim to be revolutionaries, the EFF are surprisingly prickly when criticised in public. If you do it, your Twitter timeline is going to be filled with pushback for days afterwards.
This may be the result of the fawning media attention they have received because of the role they played during the latter stage of the Zuma era. Anyone pushing against Zuma was media gold, and their own mistakes or negative issues were often left alone.
But things are changing, Zuma is no longer in power, and a Cyril Ramaphosa-led ANC, and the entire country, poses much tougher challenges for opposition parties. Walking out of Parliament in a huff probably won’t work again any time soon, and that means Malema has to try to take charge of the political agenda. To do this, he has to tilt to the one enemy he has left, the political right, the party he can claim to be “white” and protecting the rich. It was probably that understanding which led to his recent attacks on the DA, and his claim that he must punish them for not backing the motion to expropriate land.
It is often a mistake to take a politician at their word; their stated intention is not necessarily their real one. Malema has previously said he would “kill for Zuma” – then fought against him. He also promised never to leave the ANC and form his own party. This means we can take his claim that he is only doing this to punish the DA with a hefty pinch of sodium chloride. He knew the DA’s position on land expropriation when he voted in their favour in Tshwane and Joburg in the first place. And he knows that there is nothing he can do to change the DA’s view on this; this is an issue that touches their core constituency right on its studio. Rather, it is entirely possible that Malema is doing this for his usual reason; because it makes him the centre of attention.
But his choice of target is revealing in itself. Malema says that the EFF will propose a motion to remove the DA’s Athol Trollip as mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay. He has gone even further, suggesting that he will back the ANC if they put up a “credible candidate”. This inevitably leads to speculation that he is preparing to go back to the ANC.
However, Malema is not really punishing the DA at all. The party of Mmusi Maimane has enough, just enough, seats through its coalition in Nelson Mandela Bay to remain in power. Which means that an EFF-sponsored confidence motion, even with the presumed backing of the ANC, will still fail. And if Malema wanted to really punish the DA, he would not have to take up an advanced degree in rocket science first. All he would have to do is to propose the same motions in Tshwane and Joburg.
But he hasn’t done that. And he hasn’t done that for the same reason that he instructed his councillors to vote in favour of Herman Mashaba and Solly Msimanga in the first place. Because he had campaigned hard against the ANC, and he cannot now be accused of betraying the people who voted for him. In so many ways, his problem remains exactly the same as it has always been. After campaigning so hard against the ANC, he can’t just go back.
Imagine, for a moment, he were to hand Tshwane and Joburg back to the ANC. In Tshwane, that would mean the people who actually attack each other over the spoils of corruption would be in power, while in Joburg a group of people who can’t run a billing system would be in office. Now, what would happen to the EFF in next year’s elections? They would have lied to voters, and risk being badly punished.
That means that Malema would actually be in a weak negotiating position to discuss any possible return to the ANC – weak because he couldn’t bring much to the table.
At the same time, he can’t really go back to the ANC before those elections. Even if it suited Ramaphosa personally to have Malema back in the ANC (and that is by no means a foregone conclusion), he would probably have his work cut out convincing the rest of the ANC to take the EFF leader back. In such a case Malema would be dependent on the man who brought him back in, Ramaphosa, who also happens to be a man accused many times by the EFF of being responsible for the Marikana massacre. His chances of achieving high office through the Ramaphosa-led ANC look slim from this vantage point.
While Malema may be able to forestall these problems for a while, and simply keep charting the path he has, a Ramaphosa-led ANC could turn out to be an 800-pound political gorilla which will be hard to oppose. Malema may soon need to change tactics, now that the ANC has stolen one of his biggest policy planks. And there are limits to how much anger he can express towards the DA’s core constituency of white people before he starts to cross some important lines.
At the same time, he is growing more and more vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. A man who claims to represent the poor has still not found a way to make the overalls match the wristwatch. During the parliamentary election that saw Ramaphosa emerge as President, Malema refused to be part of the proceedings, claiming there should be early elections. He said the reason for this was that they didn’t want to be involved in “some career-driven elite pact”. And yet he claims to be prepared to force a change of power in Nelson Mandela Bay without an election there, and simply because the DA did something that he always knew they would do.
The longer this kind of thing keeps happening, and he is forced to make more and more decisions based on short-term tactics, the more likely he is to find that his voters start to see through him. Solving that problem would be quite difficult to do.
Malema would not have got this far without being incredibly savvy. He is a gifted politician. But, as with Zuma, decisions made for short-term reasons can eventually pile up, and leave you with few cards left to play. Unless he does some drastic moves, he risks being stuck in a tight political corner. – Daily Maverick