Malema’s fizzled insurrection

William Saunderson-Meyer says South Africa appears fed-up with the Fighters


Poor Julius Malema. What do you do next, after you’ve with great fanfare announced the start of the revolution — prepared for by stockpiling old tyres for burning and rocks for hurling — but nobody turns out on the day?

That’s far more disastrous for Africa’s wannabe Che Guevara than an insurrection that has been militarily suppressed. Suppression, after all, is an admission by the regime that the rebels are so popular that they can be contained only by letting loose the security forces.

And while such suppression may at first succeed, there’s of course the prospect of better luck for the insurrectionists next time around. Genuine revolutionary movements thrive on their initial defeats by a violent government. These skirmishes burnish their struggle reputations and enthuse the youthful cannon fodder that is needed to subvert a powerful state. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

But the Economic Freedom Fighters’ #NationalShutdown of past Monday didn’t require mobilisation and containment from the South African government. When the day came, all Malema’s threats — opponents would “meet their maker” and “no one can stop the revolution” — fizzled, leaving the EFF’s self-designated Commander-in-Chief the embarrassed object of public scorn.

The EFF had beforehand declared that there would be “no school, no university, no factory, no bus, no taxi, no trucks, no trains”. Its union allies of convenience, the SA Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), had warned that this would be the day that “the lid would be taken off the pot … a mass demonstration of the ire of the working classes”.

But instead of waves of red-shirted warriors closing down the country, there were instead pathetically small numbers of EFF stormtroopers who generally milled about cautiously and ineffectually. The exception was the main EFF march on the Union Buildings, which drew some 3,000 people.

And instead of SAFTU’s hordes of class warriors venting their spleen, small groups of mostly peaceful demonstrators, often outnumbered by police, traffic cops, security guards and soldiers, strolled desultorily through town and then quietly dispersed.

Out of an abundance of caution, some factories and shops did indeed close. But given that the shutdown was planned for a Monday — enticingly sandwiched between a weekend and a public holiday — about as many of the South African public as one might expect, went undeterred about their business.

The EFF propaganda machine resorted to circulating photographs and videos of huge crowds of red shirts chanting slogans and toyi-toying through towns and cities. But the images, as AfricaCheck quickly pointed out after doing reverse-image searches, dated back to 2020 and even 2017. Images of city streets purportedly emptied by #NationalShutdown were found to be of the Covid lockdown.

The primary EFF goal of the shutdown that didn’t happen, the resignation of President Cyril Ramaphosa, was not achieved. On the contrary, the positions of both the president and the African National Congress have been strengthened vis-à-vis the EFF, which was shown to be something of a paper tiger.

The ordinary public, for the first time and en masse, defied the EFF thugs and their threats. There were lots of quips of the “can’t organise a piss-up in a brewery” type.

Malema and the EFF should be cautious. To be laughed at rather than to be feared, is the Achilles’ heel of those who aspire to be revolutionary heroes.

Remember that other uniformed poseur, Eugene Terre Blanche, leader of the white-power Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging? After he ignominiously fell off his steed Attila onto his backside during a rally of the troops, the AWB was never again quite as scary in the public mind as it once had been.

On the other hand, the national shutdown’s failure might make Malema more dangerous than before. Recognising that the EFF and the hard-left have taken body blows to their revolutionary reputations, he may be tempted to act swiftly and dramatically to reclaim the limelight and credibility.

Nevertheless, there are grounds for cautious optimism, which has been difficult to nurture in the past dozen or so years. South Africans uniting across a broad front — civil society groups; some opposition parties like the Democratic Alliance and Action SA; business, community and religious leaders — prodded a weak and passive ANC government into action by making it clear that they were not going to cave to the EFF.

The president, after weeks of being completely unresponsive to calls for him to speak out against the EFF threats, was eventually nudged into last-gasp action. Although the statement significantly first came from the ANC secretary-general at Luthuli House party headquarters, not the president at the Union Buildings, just days before the planned shutdown it was announced that EFF violence — “anarchy of the highest order” — would not be tolerated. The following day, Ramaphosa, seemingly reluctantly, followed suit: any “anarchy and disorder” would be countered forcefully by the police and army.

Unlike the July 2021 riots, when the state over four days failed to intervene, it was therefore clear that this time around, rioters and looters would face not only well-prepared community protection groups but also the state’s full security apparatus. Unlike the July 2021 riots, where not a single ringleader — Ramaphosa said at the time that the ANC knew who the top 12 “insurrectionists” were — was charged and convicted, it was obvious that this time that there would be legal repercussions.

The Western Cape government had applied for and was granted an urgent interdict directing the EFF and its supporters not to harm or threaten people and businesses. In Gauteng, the DA failed to have the protest declared unlawful but did secure an interdict against unlawful actions, similar to the Cape Town one. And ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula warned that if there was violence, the party wanted EFF leaders to be held personally responsible for damage and deaths.

While there was some violence — more than 550 arrests for public violence, intimidation, damage to critical infrastructure, theft and attempted looting — without these constraints that had been placed on the EFF, the situation would undoubtedly have been worse.  

Proactivity also helped. The police seized 24,300 tyres that they said had been “strategically placed for acts of criminality”. And Daily Maverick reported “a heavy police presence and taxi operators manning the streets to ensure law and order” at the Pretoria march on the Union Buildings.

With the EFF on the back foot, this is the moment for democrats to press their advantage.

The time is ripe for the South African media to reflect deeply on the shameful role it has played in amplifying the voice of a small fascist party that participates in our parliamentary democracy with the intention only of subverting it. If the media had shaped its coverage of EFF and the far left’s antics with anything like the same degree of confident censoriousness that it handles other controversial issues, radical populism would not be the threat it has been.

Also, it’s time to end the outrageous tolerance on the part of the Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and law enforcement of the EFF’s and Malema’s racist abuse and threats of violence. The police and magistrates take their cues from the SAHRC and the SAHRC, in turn, from the ANC. So any such pushback depends on the ANC leadership stiffening its collective spine.

With their rejection of the #NationalShutdown, the people, as the revolutionaries like to say, have spoken. Ramaphosa and the ANC should listen.

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