He is charismatic, interesting, vocal, intelligent . . . and in some circles the most feared and despised politician in South Africa. He leads the men and women in red overalls, the party which achieved the strongest growth in 2019: the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).
The EFF's policy is largely that the past oppression of the country's black citizens has to be redressed and that the state needs to play the leading role in the economy. With regard to the first of these, the EFF emphasises redistribution – basically, taking wealth from privileged people, by which the EFF means white South Africans especially, and handing it out among black South Africans.
This model is not likely to be sustainable at all. Firstly, growth is the only way a country's economy can develop. Malema's and the EFF's reckless statements about redistribution frighten away foreign and even local investors. This contributes to the loss of expertise and prosperity, driven especially by the policy of expropriation without compensation, which apparently only applies to land in its current form, but the sentiment of middle-class and wealthy people of all races is that it could easily be expanded from land to include all property. This means that all property in South Africa would in practice become worthless should the EFF's policy be applied and the party's influence increase.
The EFF, and Malema in particular, also tend to make deeply racist statements about white people and Indians. Although it is acceptable and even exciting to some, most South Africans find it deplorable. As with the EFF's antagonistic conduct in parliament, it largely appeals to its hard-core supporters, but although it hardens that core, it stifles growth. It also creates fear among the white and Indian communities of the country, who are all too aware of their precarious position as vulnerable minorities.
Such behaviour has earned Malema and the EFF the reputation of villainous bullies in many quarters. Among the worst examples, both uttered by Malema as he addressed large, agitated crowds, were that he was 'not calling for the slaughter of white people – yet' and that most Indian people 'are ill-treating our people worse than Afrikaners do'. Regardless of what else is achieved by this, the conduct of Malema and the EFF in this context certainly does not do anything to aid reconciliation.
The habit adopted by Malema and the EFF of aiming their criticism at specific, especially white, wealthy South Africans is hard to reconcile with the party's policy goal of establishing an excellent, skilled public service. Let's take the Stellenbosch industrialist Johann Rupert as an example. He is often targeted by Malema and Shivambu. Rupert's companies contribute more in foreign dividends to the South African fiscus than the rest of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange combined and Rupert is by far South Africa's biggest personal taxpayer. South Africa would lose that money should the EFF one day succeed in its mission and drive Rupert out of the country. How on earth do Malema and his followers intend to build a functional public service if they chase away the tax base? Where is the revenue for that public service supposed to come from?
It is as though Malema and the EFF fail to realise that multinational companies and extremely wealthy individuals have a vast array of options when it comes to where they choose to invest their money and pay their tax. Nobody is bound by duty or honour to invest in any particular country – South Africa being no exception. Countries are lining up to make it easier for wealthy people and lucrative companies to invest, live and pay tax in them. And once you've sent someone packing, they are not likely to return – to your detriment and that of your country.
Moreover, the whole concept of an omniscient socialist state with selfless, distinguished government officials who sacrifice themselves for the wellbeing of the proletariat has materialised exactly nowhere. Personal reward and advance are the strongest drivers of performance.
So why does the EFF support a policy that doesn't work anywhere and is considered obsolete around the world? The most lucid answer I have been able to get out of an EFF leadership figure is that the capitalist and market-oriented system in South Africa has only brought forth more poverty and inequality since 1994 and that, as Einstein said, it is insanity to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. If one system doesn't work, another has to be tried to see whether it could work for the poor, I was told.
Beguiling as that argument might be to some, I am not convinced – my counterargument would be, if something has not worked anywhere else in the world, why would it succeed here?
An interesting aspect of the political persona of Malema and the EFF is that, given the choice, they always opt to work with the opposition and against the ANC. This despite the fact that Malema has said that 'working with the DA is like going on a romantic date with someone else before returning to your true love'.
Understandably, this kind of statement by Malema is interpreted by the ANC as a signal that the back door has been left open just a crack for the ANC to swallow the EFF, should push ever come to shove. Yet Malema has also declared publicly that he 'will never return to the ANC' and that anybody within the EFF who wants to enter into a coalition with the ANC will have to wait until he is no longer the leader.
The only explanation other than unprincipled loose talk by Malema is of course that it's not up to his preference alone whether the EFF would work with the ANC. That decision rests with the leadership collective of the EFF. As far as I understand, that is exactly where the answer lies – the majority within the EFF's leadership structures are not in favour of co-operating with the ANC.
On close examination it is clear that Julius Sello Malema is a fascinating, highly intelligent and complex character. He is South Africa's most charismatic politician. But as long as he fails to relinquish some of his entertainment value and unpredictability as well as his anger in favour of dependability, consistency and behaviour which is perhaps even a tad more boring, many people will see him as a threat rather than an inspirational leader. Most people value gravitas in their leader. After all, you wouldn't choose the classroom delinquent to lead his peers, would you?
* This is an extract from Will SA be Okay? by Jan-Jan Joubert, published by NB Publishers.