The Economic Freedom Fighters are celebrating their fifth anniversary at Mdantsane in the Eastern Cape, the country’s second-biggest township.
The opposition party’s age is equal to that of a single term of Parliament and to a presidential administration.
Since its formation, the red berets – under the leadership of Julius Malema – have been a constant thorn in the ANC’s side in Parliament and in government.
The fighters, as they refer to themselves, have shaken the very foundations on which the new South Africa was built on and are providing a critical voice in the country’s political discourse, with just 6.35% of the national vote and 25 seats in the National Assembly.
As the party celebrates its birthday, the question that Malema and his cohort have to contend with is: “Will the party survive beyond former president Jacob Zuma?”
Zuma not only fired Malema and stripped him of the wealth he accumulated in Limpopo, which left the young leader bitter, he literally became the rock upon which the EFF was formed.
The former president was a gift to the EFF, and by forcing him to pay for the Nkandla upgrades, Malema’s party solidified its place in South Africa’s political order.
Now that Zuma is gone, what becomes of the EFF?
Political analyst Ralph Mathekga said the party’s focus on Zuma was strategic as it helped it to assert itself into national politics.
“What helped them to distinguish themselves from the ANC is when they pushed a lot on this anti-Zuma and anti-corruption. I don’t know how committed they are to it, but they have done very well and it was very strategic of them,” Mathekga said.
“They have done very well, if you look at how they have been able to dominate the discourse in South Africa. I credit them for Zuma’s removal because had they not put pressure on the ANC, I don’t think the ANC would have done it as speedily as it did, even under President Cyril Ramaphosa,” Mathekga added.
He said the EFF’s focus on the land issue had increased its prospects of increasing voter support next year.
“I think they will grow and they will be rewarded. I think their voters remain very much excited. I cannot tell you by what margin. It’s not impossible at this point for them to jump to double digits.
“It is difficult to be a new party, especially when you are a splinter party, because you move from another party out of internal battles but you don’t completely have a problem with the principle of the party that you are leaving.
“They have picked the issue of land and have again pressured the ANC to adopt a parliamentary motion on this issue. It is a success on their side,” he said.
But the party’s radical and racially charged politics, especially Malema’s sharp tongue, had generated both friends and adversaries, pitting the fighters against the white community while drawing support from many black supporters disillusioned with ANC failures.
In some quarters, the EFF have gained notoriety for promoting illegality with their calls for land invasions, a move which has seen Malema being charged for incitement.
This has irked some of the country’s prominent thought leaders, including former public protector Thuli Madonsela, who accused the party of promoting lawlessness and sparking racial divisions in order to gain votes.
The party has also been accused of being irresponsible and reckless because, unlike the ANC and the DA, it did not have the responsibility of governing.
It has also come under some scrutiny for an alleged lack of internal democracy and Malema’s perceived dictatorship, according to leaders who have been booted out of the party, including Black First Land First leader Andile Mngxitama and founding secretary-general Mpho Ramakatsa.
This has also seen the party being branded a one-man party, whose existence could not be imagined without Malema at its helm.
Political analyst Professor Susan Booysen said the criticism would not negatively affect the party as it was unlikely to lose support.
“Their calls for land occupations would aid rather than detract from their support because the constituency where EFF get support is where this message resonates.
“I also think their internal problems are not as bad as in the ANC and the DA,” Booysen added.
The red berets believe they are here to stay.
EFF secretary-general Godrich Gardee said those who predicted a short lifespan for the party had failed to appreciate people’s hunger for land and economic freedom.
“Similarly, many of them also underestimated an economic movement founded on historical necessity in a society like ours with high levels of unemployment, gender and racial inequality, poverty, and massacre of workers in protection of accumulation of capital,” Gardee said.
SIVIWE FEKETHA AND GEORGE MATLALA