EFF breakaway: Five times Julius Malema allowed it to happen

The media briefing by some disgruntled members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) had everyone talking on Monday. Was it or wasn’t it a splinter group, breaking away from Julius Malema’s popular political party?

It wasn’t clear, with conflicting messages coming out of the group who also stated their aim as unseating Malema as “commander in chief” and reclaiming the party for themselves.

What was clear, however, was that this has been a long time in coming. Whether or not the new group has any teeth or much support is up for debate. The EFF’s enemies – and the party has plenty of those – have seized upon the story and it’s a publicity nightmare whether anything comes of it or not. How did the party get here? Here are five ways Malema could have avoided this nightmare and proven to his detractors that he’s not the authoritarian leader he is increasingly believed to be.

1. Lose the military lingo
When the EFF launched its anticapitalism revolution and dubbed Malema “commander in chief”, most established socialists, such as the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa – Numsa – were put off and wondered what the party was trying to do. The EFF ran on a model of “democratic centralism” that was reminiscent of Soviet Russia and, as recent events have proven, did not bode well for the party’s internal democracy.

2. Don’t arbitrarily oust leaders
In June 2014, shortly after the national elections, the Mail & Guardian first reported that Malema was purging members from his party in a restructuring exercise that had left several disgruntled. Lufuno Gogoro, then the Gauteng organiser,  was chief among these.

Gogoro and several other provincial leaders who had been unceremoniously ousted from their positions claimed they had been used to build the movement in the frenetic early days of the fledgling party, which went on to score impressive results at the polls. Their services no longer needed, they were being replaced by Malema’s cronies from his days as president of the ANC Youth League, they said.

Unsurprisingly, Malema reacted furiously to the reports, slating Gogoro and others in the group, including one member of the Gauteng provincial command team (PCT), Maxwell Mothlake, as power hungry. Malema probably isn’t wrong. Gogoro seems enormously concerned with cultivating an image for himself as a leader and, despite his sometimes legitimate issues with the EFF, one can’t help but feel that he is after power for the sake of power.

Like the ANC, it turned out that Gauteng was rapidly becoming the biggest problem for the party with independently minded and ambitious leaders. Malema should have seen this coming and waited till the party’s internal elections had allowed leaders to be elected.

3. Don’t prevent people from standing for election
Part of the problem of course was that the EFF started so rapidly that there was no protocol in place. Malema was perfectly within his rights to “restructure” the party and take out certain leaders as none of them had been elected.

But by the time the party’s first internal election rolled around, the situation had worsened.

It began towards the end of 2014, and at the regional stage there was already complaints and grumblings of discontent from the group led by Lufuno and Mothlake. By the time the provincial conferences  took place in November there were panga wars in the conference room, attempted coups and more, and it was near warfare at the national conference in December with senior members like Andile Mngxitama and Mpho Ramakatsa falling out with Malema and the senior leadership over the direction the party was taking.

The allegations were serious. Although the party commendably didn’t allow people to be suspended or expelled during elections to prevent infighting, they created a parallel layer that allowed them to “disqualify” individuals without any due process. Certain leaders were apparently prevented from running for positions because of arbitrary “disqualifications”, like campaigning on social media. Gogoro in particular, was accused of this.

There was no formal disciplinary process, simply a decision from on high that went uncontested. Meanwhile, Malema’s cronies from his ANC days were allowed to stand, such as Papiki Babuile, who won the top position in the North West despite being a convicted murderer. Malema has ardently defended him, however, saying he is innocent until his appeal process has been exhausted. It is a clear double standard.

4. Be above reproach
The EFF created the impression ahead of the election that it would change the excessive benefits for politicians: the free housing, medical aid and education. Instead, once members were elected as parliamentarians they accepted all the benefits, justifying this by saying they only meant to refuse it once they were in power and could change the system. It smacked of opportunism and double-speak and contradicted their values as a pro-poor party. Things smelled even fishier when they used public money allocated to the party to buy a car worth R400 000 for a private individual, instead of registering it to the party, coming up with a series of unconvincing explanations for the situation.

Given what they’re trying to do as a party and how they’ve taken on President Jacob Zuma over public spending on his house in Nkandla, the party should work extremely hard to show it is trustworthy when it comes to money – especially given the corruption allegations that dogged its top leaders when they were in the ANC. They have failed to do this.

5. Don’t give your enemies a stick to beat you with
Despite all the EFF’s failings, those in the splinter group led by Gogoro are no saints either. In an interview with the M&G last year he let slip that someone was funding their court challenge of the EFF’s election results, giving credence to Malema’s seemingly paranoid notion of agent provocateurs in their ranks. The group has been well organised with supporters bused in for their court appearances. As one analyst told the M&G, it was unlikely that the ruling party would not attempt to destabilise the EFF, though the ANC denied this.

The issue of who is behind Gogoro’s ongoing challenge of Malema came up again on Monday after the briefing when a screengrab of a conversation between Gogoro and an unnamed person did the rounds, with Gogoro asking the individual to come to Johannesburg to help them take on Malema and offering to pay for accommodation and transport. When asked how they were funding their extensive campaign, he claimed that Mothlake was “dipping into his savings” and they had landed a “certain agricultural deal”. It doesn’t inspire much confidence.

Malema has previously told journalists that, when he was in the ANC, he was involved in destabilising breakaway movements like Cope. Knowing what his former party was capable of, he shouldn’t have allowed such enormous opportunities for discontent within his own party.

Gogoro’s group has been largely unsuccessful in its efforts so far, and its latest plans could be more of the same. And perhaps the EFF’s supporters will continue to be as forgiving, or just plain amnesiac, as they have been in the past. But to rely on both and continue making the mistakes the EFF has made is a large and unnecessary risk.

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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