It's the EFF's first birthday and the party was in the wars again. But Malema maintains he is no monster - he listens, reflects and can be won over.
Julius Malema has been accused of having anger issues. The most notorious incident was when he verbally abused a BBC journalist in 2010 and kicked him out of a press conference.
“I’ve never lost my temper,” he says flatly in an interview with the Mail & Guardian this week. “I dealt with a white BBC journalist. That was not a reflection of a person who loses a temper. It was one incident. Why? He was displaying the mentality of a white supremacist.”
Reports at the time described Malema as remorseful, and well aware he had gone too far.
His then elders in the ANC also thought he had issues when he criticised party president Jacob Zuma. He was ordered by the ANC, in the person of secretary general Gwede Mantashe, to apologise and go for anger management classes.
He apologised at the time, but now his narrative appears to have changed. “I’ve never had a temper problem. I’ve never gone to those things Gwede wanted to take me to anger management what what.”
These days he seems to be more patient with journalists. Recently the M&G wrote an article about allegations of disunity in the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).
“I am worried that you have been writing very wrong things, especially about the unity of the EFF,” he says pointedly, referring to the article.
Indeed, Malema was more than a little peeved when the piece was published, calling for a conversation about the matter. But he did not lose his temper or display the temper he used to be renowned for.
Has he managed to get his anger under control?
“If you sit with me at a personal level, you are going to kiss me on my forehead. You will say: ‘This is not the person we are always told about, [that] he is a monster, and he is going to be Hitler’. I’m the sweetest guy. I’m the coolest guy.”
EFF sees red
But this week it was his party, the EFF, that saw red. It made headlines with a chaotic march to the Gauteng legislature to protest against members being thrown out of the legislature for wearing workers’ uniforms.
The march resulted in rubber bullets being fired, members shoving through barricades and bloody skirmishes with the police.
Malema claims that using force was a last resort. “We spoke to the speaker through [senior EFF leader] Dali Mpofu in a civilised manner.”
Attitudes have hardened towards the party. Malema tried penning a letter to various ANC leaders, he says, asking for a meeting to resolve the matter of their members being barred from the house.
“The ANC in Gauteng didn’t acknowledge the letter, neither did they respond to it. We are being treated like kids that can be ignored. That’s when we decided to take a march to the legislature.”
He doesn’t excuse the mayhem, which may see the party charged for damaging property.
“What we don’t agree with is members getting easily agitated and trying to throw stones at buildings and all that.”
Malema may have become known as the quintessential firebrand but these days, he claims, he’s trying to create a disciplined party that takes decisions carefully after weighing all the consequences.
The decision to storm the legislature was discussed by the party’s “war council” of top leadership and approved by the larger central command team. The people in both structures aren’t afraid to disagree with him, he says.
“There are heated debates, sometimes very emotional. Some of them argue in a manner you think he or she is going to cry now.”
And he claims that he practises what he describes as his best skill as a politician: he listens.
“What has made me survive throughout is my ability to listen. Even when you think I’m not listening. Once I make a reflection I’m not afraid to say: eish, you have a point, I agree with you. Once you have won me over, if you come with a persuasive argument, I speak as if I own the idea.”
His critics may argue that it’s precisely that quality that makes Malema a powerful tool in the hands of others. He doesn’t think so.
“I’m very analytical … I have a moment of reflection and process ideas and I see whether this is an act of agent provocateurs or if this a genuine idea.”
This week, the EFF celebrates its one-year anniversary.
So has the party done better on its score card than Malema infamously did in matric, and that his enemies still regularly dine out on (a G in woodwork has formed the basis of many a joke at his expense)?
He acknowledges that the party could have done better at the polls if they had taken a tip from the media: get their supporters registered to vote.
“We didn’t have our own registration campaign strategy and even when the media advised that our members are not actually registered, we were in denial about that,” he admits.
“But it came to be proven by the election outcome; it turned out to be a problem.”
Just 35% of 18- and 19-year-olds registered to vote. They also fell short in rural areas, Malema says.
But they’re learning. “All this happened because we didn’t have structures on the ground.”
By the end of the year, the party is aiming to have elected leadership at regional, provincial and national levels. Malema is hoping to have peaceful and fair elections, unlike the chaotic polls the ANC Youth League had under his command.
But already the internal contesting has started. Shortly after the elections, several former leaders cried foul over a restructuring process, which saw certain leaders removed from their positions.
It unearthed a small outburst of resentment against Malema’s style of leadership, but he brushed off the incident and attributed the unhappiness to opportunists and “infiltrators”.
Clearly not people who would want to kiss Malema.