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What Doesn’t Wound EFF Could Make It Stronger

The list of court cases faced by EFF leader Julius Malema and some of his fellow commissars is growing. There are many who will hope that these cases weaken him and bring an end to what they see as his ignoble crusade. However, the exact opposite could occur: the cases may increase Malema’s power, by allowing him to show that he is fighting “whiteness” in all its forms.

On Wednesday 20 November, Malema and EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi appeared in court on a charge of assault. The two are accused of assaulting a white uniformed police officer during the funeral of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 2018. They deny the charges.

Outside the court, Malema was quoted by TimesLIVE as saying, “I’ve never done that. If I laid a hand on him, I would have panel-beaten him. I don’t play when I lay a hand. I didn’t do that. Mbuyiseni didn’t do that. All we were fighting for was to enter the cemetery and go and bury our mother.”

Later that day, the organisation AfriForum, in a bid presumably to weaken Malema, tweeted the CCTV footage of Malema and Ndlozi clearly pushing the policeman. Under the law, a push or a shove is generally regarded as assault. This suggests that Malema and Ndlozi may well be convicted of this charge. AfriForum believed that tweeting the video could strengthen the legal case against the EFF duo, and weaken them in the court of public opinion.

This could backfire badly.

Malema tries to portray that he is the only person prepared to fight “whiteness”. The constant replaying of the video may demonstrate that Malema and Ndlozi, and the EFF in general, are prepared to do what no other politician does – push white people around.

There are many black people in South Africa who have been pushed around, physically and otherwise, by white people. Very few have ever pushed around white people, physically or otherwise.

At a time when it appears that there has been very little change in our society, and when racialised inequality and economic apartheid are still the dominant features of the economy, this may well have a powerful resonance.

It also plays into Malema’s longer-term strategy.

One of the most powerful quotes of 2018 was Malema saying the EFF was going to “slit the throat of whiteness” in Nelson Mandela Bay. He has also said that it is “not time to slaughter whites, yet”. He and his party, and Ndlozi in particular, tried to racialise the nation’s victory in the Rugby World Cup.

It can sometimes be forgotten how deep the wounds inflicted by apartheid run.

The appointment of André de Ruyter, a white man, as CEO of Eskom has brought elements of this damage to the surface. There are some, such as Malema and certain members of the ANC, who have focused only on his racial identity. It was to be expected that De Ruyter’s appointment would lead to this reaction. It is also easy to write it off as just politics, that “of course” Malema and some in the ANC would oppose his appointment.

But the wounds remain. In a powerful piece published in Business Day on Thursday 21 November, the economist Lumkile Mondi writes how this has “reopened old wounds I thought had healed”. He points out he was one of the few black students allowed to study at Wits University during apartheid, that he was not able to get work after studying because of his race, and that he was not considered for other jobs after 1994 because “lack of experience was cited”.

Perhaps the most important line in his piece is this: “I have accepted that I will never catch up to my old white classmates.”

The contribution of Mondi to South Africa cannot be underestimated. He was chief economist at the Industrial Development Corporation and now lectures at Wits. And yet he, who will no doubt be seen by some as relatively privileged, has still not been able to catch up to those who were once his peers.

This must be galling for someone who has made the contribution he has.

He is not alone. There are millions of people who look around and see that they have still not been able to “catch up”, to amass as much wealth as white people have.

It is this that Malema seeks to exploit.

For him, the courts are a fantastic site of struggle. He may be able to convince some that the courts are controlled by white people who are not properly transformed — that a black person will not get a fair hearing in a court.

So, even if he loses, and inevitably appeals, he will be hoping this increases his political power.

His response at a press briefing on Thursday reflects this. He was asked whether the EFF will back the DA’s candidate for mayor in Johannesburg next week. He replied, according to EWN:

“We supported the DA and it’s their turn now to support the EFF; it’s only fair. Why should we always support the white man? Why can’t the white man find it in himself to support a black man?”

This misses the obvious point that the DA holds a much bigger share of the vote and councillors’ seats in Johannesburg, and it is rare to see a bigger party voting for the mayoral candidate of a smaller party (although it did happen in Nelson Mandela Bay). In short, the DA is not going to vote for an EFF mayoral candidate because it does not make political sense. And there’s that inconvenient fact that DA’s mayoral candidate Funzi Ngobeni is himself black.

Malema obviously knows that, but he is portraying it in starkly racial terms. That is where his advantage lies.

The court docket is filling up with Malema cases: this assault charge, his alleged firing of an assault rifle at a rally in the Eastern Cape, and possibly even the VBS Bank looting. But they may leave him stronger.

Unless, of course, there is a testimony that proves he is corrupt – and that black people were the victims of that corruption. Anyone mentioned VBS?

OPINION: Stephen Grootes