Economic Freedom Fighters : a promissing political party for South Africa’s future ?

The origins

The Economic Freedom Fighters or EFF (in french, les « Combattants pour la Liberté Économique ») is a south african political party funded in 2013 by dissidents of the African National Congress (ANC). EFF’s figurehead is Julius Sello Malema, former member of ANC’s pioneers movement and former president of ANC Youth League. EFF’s members accuse ANC and the Democratic Alliance (south african liberal party mostly supported by white south africans) of advantaging companies and of selling out black south africans to capitalism as cheap workforce.

In brief, EFF tackles the monopoly on the country’s mineral and property wealth that the predominantly white and minimally black bourgeoisiewho grew rich after Apartheid and owns a large part of the wealth of Madiba’s country, holds. The EFF has strongly criticized black business leaders and black owners of mining companies in South Africa. In an address to the Oxford Union in November 2015, Malema spoke out against billionaire and mining company owner Patrice Motsepe. Therefore, the EFF is not only attacking the white South African bourgeoisie, contrary to what is advanced by certain Western media, but also the black South African bourgeoisie.

The leader 

Julius Sello Malema, born on March 3, 1981 in Seshego, in the former Bantustan of Lebowa, is the current president and commander-in-chief of the EFF which he himself founded. This son of a single mother of Pedi origin, a servant living in a township, comes from a very modest social background.

From the age of nine, Julius Malema Sello joined the Masupatsela, the movement of the pioneers of the ANC. In his militant youth, according to Malema, one of his main activities was to remove the election posters of the National Party (the party that implemented Apartheid). At the age of 14, Julius Malema entered the ANC youth league (ANCYL) and received military training.At the same time, his school results are very poor and will become a subject of controversy a few years later, although he will obtain a degree in philosophy. In 1995, Malema was elected head of the league’s regional branch in Seshego and regional president. In 1997, he became president of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) before becoming its national president in 2001. President of the ANCYL since April 2008, as was Nelson Mandela in the past, he quickly stood out during the war of succession at the head of the ANC waged between Thabo Mbeki, the President of the Republic and leader of the ANC in title, and his adversary, Jacob Zuma, former vice-president, during which he gives his unconditional support to Jacob Zuma.

Julius Malema is a character with a rather sulfurous temper and a divisive personality because of his remarks which sometimes exceed the limits of convenience. For example, Malema did not hesitate to call Helen Zille, leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), a “racist” and of having the “face of an apartheid spy”. Similarly, he accused the leaders of the People’s Congress (COPE, a South African party founded by supporters of Thabo Mbeki, dissidents of the ANC) of being « traitors » in favor of the imperialists.

Even though Malema occupies a prominent position within the EFF and is its figurehead, we can cite other prominent members of the party such as Vice President Floyd Nyiko Shivambu, Party Secretary General Marshall Mzingisi Dlamini , Deputy Secretary General of the party, Poppy Mailola, National President, Zovuyo Veronica Mente and Treasurer General, Omphile Maotwe.

The affair of the song: “Shoot the Boers”

Malema is the subject of many controversies, particularly because of the affair of the song « Shoot the Boers ». In 2009, Malema brought back Dubula ibhunu, a traditional song from the time when the ANC was fighting against Apartheid and which called for « killing the Boers » (the Boers designate in South Africa white Afrikaner farmers). The highlighting of this song comes in a context where, according to Agri SA – the largest union of farmers – two farmers are killed every week in South Africa.

All this in a country where 50 people are murdered every day and which has totaled 11,785 attacks and 4,044 murders of farmers since 1991. According to Malema’s supporters (including Winnie Mandela) this song is harmless and belongs to the history of the country, it does not target anyone in particular, only the apartheid system. Perceived as a racist song and calling for hatred and murder, the song Dubula ibhunu will be declared unconstitutional by the South African justice in March 2010, Malema still refuses to accept the judgment.

Prosecuted in a Johannesburg court by Afrikaner civil organizations such as AfriForum and the Transvaal Farmers’ Union (TAU), Julius Malema was found guilty of incitement to hatred for having taken up in his meetings this song from the anti- Apartheid and is sentenced to pay part of the legal costs. He then accuses the Court of “racism” towards him. On September 19, 2011, the African National Congress announced that it was appealing against this judgment prohibiting the disputed song.

Moreover, this song will cause Malema to be suspected of indirect implication in the murder of Eugene Terre’Blanche in April 2010. Terre’Blanche was a former South African policeman converted into a farmer and leader of the Mouvement of resistance Afrikaner (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, AWB), an Afrikaner paramilitary political movement, fierce partisan of Apartheid and the establishment of a Volkstaat (an autonomous territory). Eugéne Terre’Blanche was sentenced in 1997 for assault and was imprisoned for three years before being released in 2004.

Following these events, Jacob Zuma, believing that Malema’s incendiary statements contributed to the maintenance of racial tensions in the country, disavowed his protégé, declaring that the ANCYL had adopted « completely foreign behavior and remarks to the culture of the ANC ». When Julius Malema got wind of Zuma’s statement, declared that he was shocked by the president’s public comments towards him, saying that Thabo Mbeki had never treated him that way in public.

The breakup with the ANC

Because of these controversies, on April 20, 2010, Malema was subject to disciplinary proceedings. He risked, in the worst case, expulsion from the party even though it was unlikely for this sanction to be pronounced. In May 2010, the ANC disciplinary commission condemned Malema to pay a fine and to apologize for having notably supported Robert Mugabe’s policy in Zimbabwe, thus undermining Jacob Zuma’s political mediation efforts.

Nevertheless Malema continued to make controversial declarations including statements questioning Jacob Zuma’s policy and his authority over the party, which led to his appearance for insubordination before the ANC’s disciplinary commission in August and September 2011. Accused of having « damaged the reputation of the ANC » and of dividing it. Malema risked being suspended or even expelled from the party. During his hearing before the disciplinary commission, his supporters attacked the police, injured journalists and burned an ANC flag as well as t-shirts and portraits bearing the image of President Jacob Zuma. On September 2, 2011, the commission rejected all of Julius Malema’s arguments seeking to have the charges against him dropped.

On the 10th of September on the occasion of the 67th anniversary of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema in his speech again attacked the Afrikaners. This time, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. On November 10, 2011, the party’s disciplinary committee rendered its decision and suspended Julius Malema for five years for having sown division within the ANC, challenged its national leaders and damaged the image of the party. However, the commission does not hold against him the charge of incitement to racial hatred. He was expelled from the ANC youth movement on February 29, 2012. On the other hand, he was not found guilty by the commission of propagating “racism and political intolerance”. Following his expulsion from the ANC in 2012 he founded the EFF.

A political party like no other: ideology, proposals, political positioning and actions

Nothing better than this introductory sentence found on the party’s website to illustrate the EFF’s ideology: « Welcome to the Fighters for Economic Freedom: The Fighters for Economic Freedom is a radical and militant movement for Economic Emancipation, founded in 2013, with the ambition to bring together revolutionaries, activists and militants, community organizations as well as lobby groups under the umbrella of the political party that pursues the struggle for economic emancipation”.

By analyzing this quote, we can clearly see that the EFF is part of the political tradition of left-wing populism as we have known them with Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, for example.
Left populism is based on three essential criterias : the opposition between elites and the people, the constant summoning of the people and a figure of the tribune who is supposed to guide the people.


Based on the Western-centric “left-right” political divide, the EFF is often placed and places itself on the left of the political spectrum. Ideologically, the EFF is based on four pillars:

  • A Marxist-Leninist tradition: the EFF adopts a Marxian reading grid to analyze South African society, especially class struggles.This quote from Malema witnesses of it : “The scars of colonialism and apartheid are still there. The failure to change the ownership structures in our economy and return the land to our people has resulted in our people having political rights but not economic freedom.
  • Sankarism: the EFF claims the ideas of Thomas Sankara in terms of style and ideology. Moreover in May 2014, during a meeting, a prominent member of the EFF, Jackie Shandu declared that the EFF is “a proud Sankarist party”.
  • Fanon’s writings regarding his analyzes of Western imperialism, state, culture and class antagonisms that exist in all societies.
  • Pan-African school of thought.

Although the party is subject to many controversies, in particular following certain remarks made by Julius Sello Malema concerning the Afrikaners, its interest in social questions, its Marxian and identity reading grid nevertheless remains interesting and raises questions which arise in other countries on the African continent. Indeed, this party whose leitmotif is « economic emancipation » and the slogan « Our land and jobs, now! » puts on the table social and identity proposals that could apply to many countries on the continent facing similar issues.


On the social level, we can cite some key measures of the party such as its will to fight against corruption which is endemic in South Africa, to dispense quality social housing, to provide basic care and education for all and cost free. The EFF also proposes to expropriate stolen land, to nationalize the mining and banking sectors, to double social assistance and the minimum wage and to abolish the toll system for the highways.

In terms of identity, in June 2015, the party resumed in its program an old pan-Africanist proposal asking that South Africa be renamed « Azanie », that the South African national anthem be purged of Die Stem van Suid-Afrika ( the national anthem during Apartheid, some elements of which have been incorporated into the current anthem) and that the architecture of buildings be reviewed and adapted to reflect the history of the struggle of Africans against colonialism. It also calls, in its program for the 2016 municipal elections, for around 40 towns in the Western Cape province to also be renamed. Once again, at a time when the question of unbolting statues or changing the names of streets paying homage to colonization arises, both in Africa and in the West, the EFF raises a topical question.

Political positioning

Malema has defended Mugabe’s land expropriation policy from white Zimbabweans and proposes to nationalize South African mines and expropriate South African white farmers without compensation. He declares that the imperialist regime must be « overthrown » in Botswana, attributing to President Ian Khama’s label of « puppet of the West » because Botswana is the host of Africom (the American military command operational in Africa) and for having claimed that Julius Malema was an « unruly boy ». Challenging NATO’s intervention in Libya, he calls the Americans « bloodthirsty imperialists ». These statements take place within a set of speeches by ANC Youth League leaders questioning the leadership of the ANC and the South African government.

During the xenophobic violence that has punctuated South Africa recently (which notably targeted Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Mozambicans, Zambians, accused of stealing the work of South Africans) Julius Malema was one of the few South African politican that strongly condemned these acts. He notably declared that once those responsible for these xenophobic acts have finished attacking their African brothers, they will then attack their own compatriots. For Malema, to say that foreigners steal the work of South Africans is simply misinformation. For him, the xenophobia that exists in South Africa results from the fact that many Africans suffer from “self-hatred”.


Furthermore, the EFF is a political party that does not hesitate to go into the field to carry out occasional punching actions. For example, in 2016, the Economic Freedom Fighters participated in and led several demonstrations at the University of Pretoria and the University of the Free State for Afrikaans to no longer be one of the alternative languages ​​of instruction and to be replaced by African languages.

Similarly, on January 13, 2018, following a racist advertising campaign (showing a black child wearing a sweater on which he read: « the coolest monkey in the jungle ») the EFF ransacked the stores of the HM brand in South Africa.

Electoral results and sociology of the EFF electorate

Regarding its electoral results, the EFF has established itself as a major political party in South African political life but also as one of the main opposition parties. Indeed, in 2014, the party made a breakthrough in the general elections, entering the National Assembly with 6.35% of the vote and entering all the provincial assemblies. In the 2016 municipal elections, the EFF won 8.31% of the vote and won several majorities. Finally in the general elections of 2019, the party improved its score, winning 10.79% of the vote and progressing in all the provincial elections. Today, the EFF has 44 deputies out of 400 in the National Assembly and 11 representatives out of 90 in the National Council of Provinces.

The EFF scores well in the provinces where it does not hesitate to play on alliances with other political parties such as the ANC or the Democratic Alliance. However, the party must still fight to consolidate and weigh more on the national level. Regarding the sociology of his electorate, it is mainly made up of young black men who come largely from the most disadvantaged social strata of South African society.


To conclude, we can say that in terms of electoral results, the EFF is a party that is on a good dynamic and which could in the near future play an even more preponderant role in South African political life. Indeed, the party could notably benefit from the erosion of the ANC’s monopoly on South African political life because of the corruption cases in which it is involved (the Jacob Zuma affair for example), without forgetting social inequalities glaring and endemic insecurity faced by the South African people and to which the ANC has not provided a concrete response since coming to power. In a scenario where the anger of the South African people would continue to mount towards the ANC and its leaders because of the unresolved basic social problems of South Africans, the EFF could very well be propelled to power. On the ideological level, the EFF, because of its interest in the social question, its Marxian reading grid and its defense of the African identity (“African sovereignty”) of South Africa, remains a party with interesting proposals. whose topicality deserves to be followed on all the continent. This “radical”, “populist” political line appeals and will be able to appeal more to a popular electorate increasingly disappointed by the ANC, which bodes well for the EFF in the electoral field in the near future.

However, the party would benefit from “institutionalizing itself”, sometimes when we observe the behavior of certain members of the party during punch operations, we wonder if the EFF is a political party or a political militia. We can also blame the EFF for a very pronounced taste for militarism, not to mention the sulfurous reputation of its leader Julius Sello Malema. Moreover, in April 2016, he announced, in an interview with Al Jazeera, that he did not rule out resorting to violence to overthrow the government, which led the ANC to file a complaint against him for treason. All these elements mean that Malema for the moment does not reassure enough and is not taken seriously enough by some South Africans. He is confined to the role of troublemaker. The EFF would benefit from “normalizing” itself without denying its subversiveness and its radicalism in order to reach a slightly more moderate electorate but without alienating its popular electorate either.

Finally, it is all well and good to report corruption, but the EFF itself is embroiled in corruption cases. In fact, an investigation by a center for investigative journalism revealed that the EFF had received R500,000 in bribes from a company in return for a R1.26 billion contract to run a fleet of vehicles used by the city of Johannesburg, with the tacit agreement of the Democratic Alliance. In addition, Julius Malema has been accused of personal enrichment and is implicated in a case involving the embezzlement of millions of public funds; he was the subject of a police investigation but denies these accusations. On the other hand, when we follow Malema on social networks, especially on Instagram, we can see that he leads a fairly luxurious lifestyle. We are very far from the frugality of the great Marxist leaders such as Thomas Sankara, which leads to a paradox between his convictions and his way of life (even if he is not the first, nor the last politician to lead a lifestyle contrary to his ideas). As another would say: « To go up to the coconut tree, you have to have clean underwear » or even: « You see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but not the beam in yours ». We will end with this quote from Alfred Musset which seems to illustrate the EFF as well as a good number of African political organizations: “Never mind the bottle, as long as we get drunk.”

Written by Charles Faye.

Translated by Marie Camara.

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