Sitting in a plush lodge on the edge of Kruger National Park, the self-styled
revolutionary and spokesman for South Africa’s dispossessed outlines calmly his plans to expropriate land from white farmers, and nationalise banks and mines in Africa’s largest economy.
“We are worse than the way we were during apartheid,” he tells the Financial Times during a 90 minute interview. “The only thing that has changed is the government of white people has been replaced with a government of black people.”
The stout, boyish-looking 33-year-old, dressed in black tracksuit and black trainers, is a highly divisive figure. To critics, including many businesspeople, he is an opportunistic rabble-rouser tainted by corruption allegations. To supporters, he is a rare voice speaking to the divisions enduring in one of the world’s more unequal societies despite strides taken since the end of white rule.
Campaigning to the left of the ruling African National Congress he aspires to steal votes from the ruling party’s heartland, the rural and urban black poor, in elections on May 7. They are widely expected to be the most closely contested since the end of apartheid 20 years ago.
Mr Malema described president Jacob Zuma – the man he helped propel to the country’s top job – as a “monster”, and denounced the ANC’s 20-year record in power. He formally launched his Economic Freedom Fighters in October after being expelled from the ANC – where he led the militant youth league – for indiscipline in 2012.
He makes the point that while under the ANC more black people may have gained access to water and electricity, the water is often not clean and the electricity connection does not guarantee power. “So you are actually in more pain because these things are closer to you and, close as they are, you cannot use them,” he says.
This message resonates with the frustrated black majority in a country where youth unemployment is at least 50 per cent, and almost 40 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. It also carries weight with blacks of all classes who believe they are still economically marginalised in a country where the corporate world remains predominantly in white hands.
The challenge for Mr Malema is to turn disgruntlement into votes and survive court cases that could derail his career.
The politician, whose penchant for designer watches has come to symbolise his perceived opulent lifestyle, has had his properties auctioned off as the revenue authority has pursued him for R16m ($1.5m) in outstanding taxes. He is fighting a sequestration order and says he is willing to make a revised offer to resolve the matter.
Mr Malema has courted controversy in the past by saluting President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe but he says the EFF would not follow the path of Zimbabwe, where the forced and often violent seizure of white-owned land triggered a collapse of the economy.
But he says he wants government to be the custodian of land that grants licences to users and insists the state should control 60 per cent of mines.
“Foreign investors who are prepared to share with South Africans are more than welcome,” he says. “But if it is about individualism and maximisation of profit to the exclusion of indigenous people, such a foreign investor will not be entertained.”
Mr Malema and the EFF have brought a new dimension to the country’s political landscape. Pallo Jordan, an ANC intellectual, has said the ANC “might opt for more radical policies” if it faces an effective challenge from the left, “realigning South African politics in directions that few will have anticipated”.
The other threat to the ANC comes from the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party. But it is still viewed by many – fairly or not – as a largely white party.
Yet for all his outward confidence Mr Malema acknowledges the campaign against the well-oiled ANC election machinery is a difficult one. And touting his radical policies can be a hindrance when seeking financial backers.
“It is a very difficult campaign in that we do not have resources and our policies are such that those who own resources will never finance us,” Mr Malema says. “Elections are very expensive things in South Africa, but if we had resources we would remove the ANC from power tomorrow.”
Source: FT. By Lionel Barber, Andrew England & Javier Blas