Mpumelelo Mkhabela: Why Malema's leadership style could choke the EFF's growth

Malema and the EFF must evolve in part by listening to critics and not rubbishing them or calling them names. The party must begin to reflect the aspirations of all South Africans, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.

On October 27, 2015, South Africa witnessed the biggest march in recent history. It was led by Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange where a memorandum was submitted with a list of demands for economic justice for ordinary workers, among others.

No single political party has since been able to pull off that kind of march. The bigger "Zuma must fall" march was a multi-organisational effort.

Among its successes, the EFF has been a force in mobilising capabilities. Having 10.79% (44 seats) representation in the National Assembly after the 2019 is another significant success.

The party has caught the imagination of students on university and college campuses. The EFF Student Command has grown tremendously, replacing the once-ubiquitous ANC-aligned South African Student Congress (Sasco) in many SRCs.

Malema's strengths are his oratory skills, disrespect for authority, mobilisation strategies and ability to thoroughly dominate the party. His anti-corruption and unconventionally disruptive parliamentary politics found resonance among South Africans who felt helpless at the height of the Jacob Zuma Nkandla controversy and Gupta state capture. He gave them a voice.

But like his erstwhile political nemesis Zuma, Malema had always acted invincible in the face of alleged wrongdoing. His party was constructed in a way that would fortify the invincibility from within. As a "commander in chief" who presides over the EFF's "war council", Malema built the party to project a top-down leadership style.

He has neither equal nor near-equal. This has made it almost impossible for anyone in the party leadership to substantially question him and his deputy, Floyd Shivambu about the reputational harm the VBS and slush fund scandals are causing the party.

Unlike Mamphela Ramphele of Agang, who faced a challenge and a disciplinary process within the party that she had helped establish, it would be a mission for anyone to challenge Malema on issues, ethics and leadership in party. To a large extent his dominance of the party is the reason for its success.

It would have been impossible to grow the EFF without his domineering personality. In a big way, he is the party personified.

But, there is a big question mark about the sustainability of this model of politics. Bantu Holomisa founded the United Democratic Movement (UDM) two decades ago and immediately secured a respectable electoral support base. But over time the party has declined while he remained at the helm unchallenged.

The Reverend Kenneth Meshoe founded the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) and dominated it even as it declined and stagnated. There seems to be no prospect of a challenger in this conservative Christian party. Could it be that Meshoe enjoys anointment from the heavens?

Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) founder Mangosuthu Buthelezi dominated the party since its foundation in 1975. Since the beginning of electoral contests in 1994, to which the IFP participated as an after-thought, it has risen and declined. Buthelezi's overly delayed departure from leadership was not helpful.

Of course, unlike Buthelezi, Meshoe and Holomisa, Malema has the comparative advantage of youth.

Divisive leadership contests in the ANC and the DA have somehow helped the biggest two parties not to face the risk of immediate terminal decline. At its weakest point, the ANC retained a clear majority.

Can Malema sustain EFF growth?

The question is whether Malema's leadership style can sustain the party's growth. Can it position the EFF as a party with an alternative model to the dominant leader style experienced by declining parties and the increasingly brutal succession battles of its main opponents, the ANC and the DA?

How could Malema's model render irrelevant all the allegations of undue financial benefits from VBS, colourfully named slush funds and the criminal charges he faces related to assaulting of police officer and public discharge of a firearm?

The success of the EFF thus far shows there is space for their kind of radical, African nationalist politics. But in a complex society, that kind of space is considerably insufficient to take Malema to the Union Buildings.

The EFF might need to tone down on their racial rhetoric and develop accountability measures for the conduct of its leaders – the latter an understandably impossible task given the fact that Malema has no challenger within – in order to draw a bigger support base.

South Africans enjoy their right to speak out and to protest. Malema is a typical example of those who thrive by challenging authority. So, although EFF members might be appreciative of the role Malema has played in constructing a powerful voice in South African politics, they will soon aspire to challenge his authority and his conduct when they believe he is compromising the party.

As the party grows in size and age, allegiance to it might increase at the expense of Malema the individual. His response could be to either bludgeon internal critics to silence or embrace critical voices. Either response holds potential risk or progress depending on execution.

Malema is already entangled in a debate about possible disbandment of the EFF Student Command which he regards as having gone astray. It is also suspected he would prefer some people around him to be ousted at the party's elective conference in December.

These suggest that he believes only he is the centre that can hold the party together in his preferred command style. There is a risk that if Malema emerges out of the December conference in a way that further entrenches the idea that everything is about him and his political/personal desires, those who support the party out of principle might reconsider their stance.

Malema and the EFF must evolve in part by listening to critics and not rubbishing them or calling them names. The party must begin to reflect the aspirations of all South Africans and offer an alternative route to reach those aspirations.

South Africans have been through divisions. Most of the divisions should be addressed instead of being amplified. South Africa's democracy needs strong, constructive and nation-building oriented political alternatives.

If the EFF and its leader don't evolve in their ideological outlook, what appears to be a success today might, when reviewed in future, be dismissed as though it was a mere boom-and-bust scenario.

- Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.

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