Seeing red: Malema stalks ANC from left

Colour has always been central to South African politics, but now, nearly 20 years after the end of apartheid, the tint of your T-shirt matters as much as that of your skin.
Julius Malema addresses miners who marched on Pretoria in September. Picture: GettyJulius Malema addresses miners who marched on Pretoria in September. Picture: Getty
Julius Malema addresses miners who marched on Pretoria in September. Picture: Getty

While the yellow, green and black of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) remains dominant, it is the bright red of an ultra-left party founded by expelled ANC youth leader Julius Malema that is making the big splash.

With Mr Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) only a little more than 100 days old and untested by any opinion poll, it is hard to say precisely how much impact they will have on next year’s elections.

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However, the garish shirts and red Che Guevara-style berets popping up in the sprawling townships and shanty towns of Johannesburg and Pretoria suggest the Fighters, as they like to be known, will make their mark in the first election for the “Born Free” generation – voters born after apartheid ended in 1994.

The anger of the millions of blacks for whom life has changed little in the two decades since the end of white-minority rule has provided fertile hunting ground, and any EFF success is almost certain to be at the expense of the ANC, which won two-thirds of the vote in the last election in 2009.

“We are recruiting people every day,” said Happy Lefekane, a 39-year-old EFF activist in Bekkersdal, a rundown township 25 miles west of Johannesburg which experienced a week of rioting last month over shoddy public services.

Although township riots are common – one major “service delivery protest” happens every two days, according to monitoring group Municipal IQ – the Bekkersdal uprising was notable for its intensity and explicit rejection of the ANC.

When provincial premier Nomvula Mokonyane went to try and calm the crowd, she made matters worse by telling them the ANC did not need Bekkersdal’s “dirty votes”. She had to be rescued from a mob and driven away in a police armoured vehicle.

“Nomvula has opened up a can of worms. She is the best recruiting agent we’ve got,” Mr Lefekane said. “We don’t want her apology. We want radical change.”

Ominously, at the height of the unrest 20-year-old EFF activist Themba Khumalo was shot dead outside his tin shack by unknown gunmen. No arrests have been made but Mr Khumalo’s friends are in little doubt he died because of the colour of his beret.

“The ANC people are the ones who started this,” said EFF activist Ruth Mogatwe, 30, at a wake held for Mr Khumalo a week later. “There’s no proof but I think they’re the ones who killed the guy.”

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The ANC denies it resorts to political violence and has called for tolerance and “good behaviour” from its members.

Mr Malema, who holds up Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe as a political model for his seizure of white-owned farms, was kicked out of the ANC 18 months ago, officially for ill-discipline – unofficially for challenging president Jacob Zuma.

The 32-year-old quickly found a political lifeline in the police killing of 34 strikers at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in August last year. Cashing in on simmering worker discontent in the mines, which are still overwhelmingly owned and run by whites, and on public outrage at the shootings, Mr Malema formed a party with an unashamedly populist message to take on the ANC from the left.

It formally launched – at Marikana – on 13 October.