When it comes to political theatre, Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) definitely does not need any help.
Yet that is precisely what the party’s opponents, the ruling ANC, has given it by evicting the EFF’s representatives from the Gauteng provincial legislature because of the choice of party uniform.
The ensuing publicity storm does everything for the EFF and little for the ANC in Gauteng, who appear to be victimising the fledgling radical party and conveniently turning them into martyrs.
Malema has built his popularity on his keen ear for a relevant cause coupled with his formidable oratory power.
Both were let loose at an EFF press conference in Braamfontein on Thursday, where a briefing on organisational planning and general matters turned into an impassioned discussion of the ideology of the party’s red uniforms. According to Malema, those who opposed it within the ANC were evincing their class bias and hatred towards the working class and poor.
On Tuesday EFF members were violently removed from the Gauteng provincial legislature after speaker Ntombi Mekgwe said their red overalls and domestic workers’ uniforms were inappropriate – this despite the uniforms being worn without issue in the national assembly, albeit sans the slogans they sported in the Gauteng legislature.
Police were summoned when the EFF members refused to leave the House causing a fracas during which a few EFF members were injured. The party has now been banned from the Gauteng legislature if members of the provincial legislature wear the uniform.
As far as Malema was concerned, this was tantamount to an ideological battle.
Delivering a volley of increasingly angry rebukes to the ruling party on the issue, Malema was moved from righteous indignation to threatening violence.
“They look down on workers’ clothes because they do the same thing with their workers at home. The same thing they do to workers at home they’re doing to us,” began the party leader, mimicking the supposed attitude of the country’s political elites who despised their humble beginnings: “‘We have visitors, go to the backroom. Don’t want something smelling badly’,” he parodied, to giggles from the audience.
But things turned serious as Malema warmed up to his impromptu subject matter over time, a common characteristic of his speaking style.
“They reject their workers at home, so they reject their uniforms in parliament,” he said, likening the rejection of the party’s uniforms to an act of self-hatred on the party of the ANC, whom he accused of betraying their parents who were gardeners and maids.
And to those critics who have called for the EFF to focus on real issues instead of obsessing over the seemingly frivolous matter of uniforms, Malema insisted that the uniforms themselves were a substantive and real issue, which stood for all the party was fighting for.
‘We are not white’
“To you proper is white, to you proper is European. We are not white, we are going to wear those uniforms,” he said. “We are defying colonialist decorum. We are not English-made. We are workers, and we are going to wear those clothes and we are unapologetic about it.”
The irony, of course, is that Malema was known in his previous iteration as ANC youth league leader for his expensive suits and flashy watches, such as the Breitling he famously sported. But these have given way to a “worker’s uniform” in solidarity with the poor and working class on the back of which the EFF has largely built its support.
Malema acknowledged as much. “It doesn’t mean we don’t have proper clothes, we have very proper clothes. But this is a political battle we are fighting.”
Like the party’s red berets, the party’s overalls are beyond mere branding and serve as a stand-in for the party’s policies, its people and its very raison d’être in one simple and tangible image perfectly pitched to its target audience.
Malema’s right hand man Floyd Shivambu noted that the party was not dealing with the uniform issue alone, but has been raising substantive issues “above the quality and depth” of the ANC.
‘Mobilise our people’
But for Malema, the overalls issue has become a simple battle, which both appeals to his supporters and garners seemingly endless coverage. He spoke at length to the subject on Thursday, his rhetoric racheting up notch by notch as he dwelt on the injustice of the situation.
“Continuation to remove EFF from legislature through unruly methods will lead to instability in this province. We will fight. We have the capability to mobilise our people and fight physically,” he said.
“We are not scared of anything. We will bring our voters into the city and they will know who we are. They must not push because we have the capacity to fight,” Malema said.
The threats of physical violence should be a concern, no matter how important the cause may be. But thanks to the Gauteng ANC’s short-sighted move, the seriousness of the violence threats are lost. Instead, Malema has been neatly handed his next political theatre script.