“We need to break our virginity in a memorable way!” said Julius Malema, as he grinned impishly at the journalists assembled at his party’s headquarters in Braamfontein, Johnnesburg, last Friday.
It was the eve of the Economic Freedom Fighter’s (EFF) biggest test of internal democracy: four provinces were holding “people’s assemblies” and electing the party’s first democratic provincial leadership that weekend with the rest to follow soon after. The pièce de résistance, the party’s national people’s assembly, is scheduled for mid-December.
Malema managed to turn questions about growing discontent, following fractious branch and regional elections, into a joke about the party’s first initiation rite with just the right dose of ribald humour.
But three days later, that rite of passage was looking to be a bloody and violent affair and not quite the bed of roses Malema had envisaged.
The Northern Cape conference dissolved in spectacular fashion as panga fights broke out between would-be contenders. The Eastern Cape conference saw police called in over an “attempted coup” by those unhappy with the current leadership. One particularly vocal faction in Gauteng has repeatedly threatened a court interdict on their provincial conference. The Mail & Guardian heard of further restlessness from EFF members in almost every other province.
Following the intra-party mayhem, the M&G sat down with party spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, who put the growing disgruntlement down to a clash of culture between those with an “uncontrollable ambition to be in a position” in the increasingly popular party and the party’s philosophy of centralised democracy.
“The EFF’s internal democracy is based on democratic centralism … that is who we are. It’s the most systematic, democratic way of working out anything,” said Ndlozi.
Accordingly, the party’s top leaders in its central command team are given enormous power to disqualify individuals from election processes if they believe they have transgressed certain rules – and without giving them a proper hearing or an opportunity to defend themselves.
Ndlozi denied that the system was open to abuse. “I’ve never heard of that complaint. There is a meeting that takes place and we look at the evidence. If we disqualify [an individual], it’s not the harshest action.”
The EFF has been sensitive to attempts to interfere with the election process through expulsions and suspensions, and has forbidden these from being done while elections are taking place. But the disqualification process has kept individuals out of the election process without allowing them a chance to defend themselves.
The term “disqualified” is not explicitly mentioned in the party’s election guidelines, which simply lists 17 items as “wrongful lobbying practices and unacceptable ways of influencing the leadership election processes”.
Social media prohibited
The rules prohibit the use of everything from “social networks, such as Facebook, WhatsApp or Twitter” to campaign, to “using violence, intimidation and threats to coerce those who hold a different view”.
Lufuno Gogoro from Gauteng was disqualified for airing his views on mainstream and social media. But Gogoro accused Zorroh Boshielo, who ended up winning the position of Gauteng chair, of also using his Facebook account to garner support.
Besides an excess of selfies, Boshielo’s account features images of him in close contact with Malema, and innocuous phrases such as “Gauteng people say ‘yes we can'” ahead of the elections. Boshielo acknowledged that “campaigning on Facebook is very subjective”.
Ndlozi emphasised that those who experienced problems in the organisation were encouraged to air their grievances through the party’s structures. He said the EFF had not heard anything of Gogoro’s complaints, except through his lawyers.
Gogoro’s supporters, calling themselves “defenders of the EFF”, showed the M&G emails sent to Malema last month, raising their concerns and requesting a meeting, to which he replied: “Please stop sending me this type of emails, I’m not going to meet with any of you.”
Experts agree that the party is romanticising a very dangerous concept in democratic centralisation.
Professor Devan Pillay of the University of the Witwatersrand said it sounded like “vanguardism”: when a movement errs more on the “centralism” than the “democracy” aspect of the philosophy.
“You privilege the vanguard, the revolutionary elite,” Pillay said. “They’re the ones that possess ultimate revolutionary knowledge and they’re the ones that have to keep a tight rein on the organisation.”
Many left-wing parties have, instead, favoured participatory democracy alternatives, he said, building from the bottom up.
Dr Richard Pithouse, a politics lecturer at Rhodes University, agreed. “If you don’t have proper processes around people bringing people into some kind of accountability then democratic centralism is just a mask for authoritarianism.”
He said it was critical to allow individuals an opportunity to defend themselves against allegations.
“It’s always a convenient weapon in the hands of people who want to exclude critics,” said Pithouse, who added that in standard trade union traditions an individual was entitled to a fair hearing and representation when allegations were brought against them.
Then, of course, there is the EFF leaders’ track record.
In his secretariat report in December last year, Irvin Jim, general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, said the organisation was hesitant to ally itself with the EFF despite overtures from the party.
“Malema and [Floyd] Shivambu, key founding leaders of the EFF, were leaders of the ANC Youth League,” said Jim. “Although no conclusive evidence is available, their leadership was plagued by allegations of undemocratic practices in relation to elections … and silencing of opponents.”
Pillay agreed. “I want to be fair to a young organisation that wouldn’t have robust structures in place,” he said. “But there is nothing in Malema’s files to suggest he is a democrat. The way he manipulated conferences in the past… They just don’t come from that culture.”
Ndlozi, however, points to the party’s successes. It has managed to build branches and structures across the country in record time and is increasingly building momentum.
“This too shall pass,” he told the M&G. “You are still going to see lots of these disgruntled members because the EFF is taking shape. And in the process of taking form, the real cadres are going to be tested.”