Economic Freedom Fighters on rise in South Africa
Malema’s new party is set to make a real impact in the May general election
Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema points the way to supporters in Johannesburg on Tuesday. Photograph: Ihsaan Haffejee/EPA
Despite 20 years of South African democracy, time appears to have stood still for the residents of Zwelethemba, a poor black township in the Western Cape province interior.
Located on the outskirts of Worcester, the largest town in the picturesque Breede Valley, the community is predominately comprised of migrant workers from the Eastern Cape province who, if luck is on their side, work seasonally on the local fruit farms.
Made up mostly of shacks and tiny low-cost government houses, the township offers residents little in the way of employment or public amenities.
The Xhosa word Zwelethemba means “place of hope”, but hope is in short supply here. Residents say successive governments have done little to improve their lives.
However, the promise of change came to Zwelethemba on Tuesday in the form of a dozen or so men and women in red berets and T-shirts, who gathered in the middle of a car park outside a supermarket.
The foot soldiers of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) had arrived to prepare for the party’s provincial candidate, Nazier Paulsen, to address residents ahead of the May 7th general election.
The EFF is one of a number of new parties to emerge in South Africa’s political scene in the past 24 months, all of which have been canvassing across the country for the past year.
But unlike the majority of newcomers, this group of self-proclaimed “revolutionaries” could make a real impact, analysts say, taking between 4 per cent and 8 per cent of the national vote. This could make them kingmakers in provinces where the governing African National Congress is in danger of losing its absolute majority.
The party’s popularity is due to the stature of its charismatic firebrand leader – Malema is a former ANC Youth League leader who was expelled from the party in 2012 – the party’s branding genius, and the radical policies it espouses.
The EFF is the party of the poor, it says, and if given power by the electorate it will do what the ANC and opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) have failed to since 1994: provide the poor African majority with the means to secure economic freedom, at the expense of the predominately white male capitalists keeping them down.
says it would expropriate “stolen land” without compensation, nationalise the mining and banking sectors, double social grants and the minimum wage and “physically” destroy the proposed tolling system for highways.
In addition, it promises to tackle corruption, provide quality housing, and make free primary healthcare and education available to all. Its electoral rivals – mainly the ANC and DA – are pro-business and have sold out the people of South Africa to capitalism, the EFF says.
While their policies sound appealing to many poor South Africans, most mainstream economists believe they are unworkable or unsustainable in the local context, and would do the country far more harm than good.
Nevertheless, new EFF members Bulelwa Qwela (32) and Vanessa Mngcele (42) have decided to embrace the party’s philosophy and take its message to their friends and neighbours.
“I used to vote for the ANC and I will never vote for the DA.” says Qwela. “They both had their chance in the Western Cape but nothing has changed. We want to give Malema a chance.”
By the time EFF premier candidate Nazier Paulsen, a former university lecturer from Cape Town, arrives to address residents the crowd has grown to a couple of hundred. From the top of a ladder he surveys the scene, before saying all he can see is “a sea of hopelessness”.
“They throw us here on the outskirts of Worcester and leave us with nothing,” he says. “The premier of the Western Cape [DA leader Helen Zille] calls us refugees and she is right. But you can take back your land on May 7th.
“If you vote for the EFF we will restore the dignity of the black people. The DA and ANC are not interested in black people. They serve the rich – not us!”
Listening is local teacher Jumior Jayiya (33), a father of two who used to vote ANC but has become disillusioned with the party and the allegations of corruption that dog it.
“In 2009 I didn’t vote because I knew I would be wasting it,” he says, “ but now I am going to vote for the EFF. I believe in their principals of sharing the wealth of the country.”