How Julius Malema keeps EFF right on the button

Leader of the EFF Julius Malema
Leader of the EFF Julius Malema
Image: Alaister Russell

If there is anyone who knows how to press South Africa's buttons, it is Julius Malema.

His speech at the launch of the EFF's voter registration campaign in Johannesburg on Sunday was the type of populist demagoguery that would make Hugo Chavez proud.

Malema sought to do two things in his address. The first was to assert the EFF's relevance in the changed political landscape; and the second was to shift attention away from the new star attraction, President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Malema is accomplished at rattling the cages of the establishment and the middle class, and there is nothing that causes more upset than threatening the constitutional edifice and structure of society. Land and property ownership will thus be the cornerstone of the EFF's election campaign.

Malema said the EFF's success in the 2019 elections would depend on the number of people it gets to register as voters from this weekend rather than in the final sprint next year. Malema wants to target new voters, not just those disgruntled with the ANC and scouting for other options. He wants to delineate his constituency and keep them engaged until they vote.

Some of the target points Malema sketched in his speech were race, youth employment and patterns of land ownership - all emotive issues that could keep the EFF's election campaign buzzing. "We are not going to disrupt farming. We are going to inherit farming and continue to farm. We want agricultural colleges open. Because the land is coming and it is going to need educated farmers," he said.

"We are not just talking about giving the people the land - we are talking about healing the painful past. The restoration of the land will heal the pain of black people."

Malema is taking credit for thousands of students benefitting from the new free education policy by directing walk-in registrations after tertiary education institutions declared the registration process was closed. He said the government ought to pay students who could not find jobs - something that could turn into another mobilisation platform.

The EFF wants to counter commentary that it would have no popular traction now that Jacob Zuma has been sent off into the political wilderness.

Malema is already leading the ANC around by the nose on the land question - pushing the party to commit to expropriation without compensation before it had time to properly examine the resolution it adopted at its December conference.

Instead of the ANC shaping a game plan to manage the land question, it has to play keep up with the EFF. The ANC does not appear to have draw-cards to light-up the election campaign, other than the fact that it has a new leadership and a president on a mission to undo the damage of his predecessor.

The most exciting prospect that the ANC could offer from an elections workshop at the weekend was that its former presidents would join them on the campaign trail - and even that was botched when Thabo Mbeki disputed this.

With the ANC neutered, Malema has directed his guns at the DA, wanting to "punish" it for opposing land expropriation without compensation. The DA now has to embark on a counter strategy to protect its municipal governments instead of going on the offensive against the ANC as it had planned.

There is obvious race baiting in Malema's statements - deliberately so. "We are cutting the throat of whiteness" is purposefully provocative to incite fear and stoke controversy. So too was this declaration: "By the way, we are not scared of war. We just refuse to talk war during peace...No one should threaten us about the issue of land."

As Malema rounded up his speech, he fired up his supporters: "The land is coming back! Let us go and learn farming! The land is coming back, our people are getting the land back! This is our land! Mayibuye!"

Malema has once again found a way to inflame the national conversation and he has every intention of keeping it ablaze.