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Economic Freedom Fighters Became South Africa’s Third Largest Political Party In Just 10 Years. What’s Behind Its Electoral Success

The Oasis Reporters

October 16, 2023







The Economic Freedom Fighters marked its 10th anniversary at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg on 29 July 2023. Guillem Sartorio/AFP via Getty Images

Ongama Mtimka, Nelson Mandela University and Gary Francis Prevost, College of Saint Benedict & Saint John’s University

South Africa is drawing nearer to a landmark national general election in 2024. Based on recent electoral trends and opinion polls, the governing African National Congress (ANC) is expected to drop below 50% of the national vote for the first time since democracy in 1994.


The end of single party dominance is expected to result in the country having its first national coalition government since the ANC came to power. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the country’s third largest party, is a must watch in that transformation. The party’s electoral support has been growing since 2014, amid declines for both the ANC and the Democratic Alliance (DA), the main opposition.


In that time period, the ANC’s electoral support has fallen from over 62% in 2014 to 57.50% in 2019, and the DA’s from over 22% to 20.7%. The EFF’s share of the vote rose from just over 6% in its first election in 2014 to about 11% in 2019.


The EFF also gained more seats in provincial legislatures and municipal councils in 2014 and 2016. Research shows that it’s been appealing to mainly young voters.


We are political scientists with experience in leftist parties in Latin America and South Africa. We did a critical analysis of the EFF through the lens of the party’s communication strategies. We analysed survey and exit polling data as well as the ideology, strategy and tactics of the EFF from a political communication theory perspective. Political communication focuses on how political actors craft and distribute their messages.


Based on the findings, we argue that the EFF has gained its modest but significant standing in South African politics by stealing the ANC’s mantle. It portrays itself as the true custodian of the values the ANC espoused during the anti-apartheid struggle, as stated in the Freedom Charter, its blueprint for a free South Africa. The EFF accuses the ANC of having abandoned this agenda. This has enabled black South African voters to shift their support from the ANC to the EFF without changing their political orientation.


This lies behind the EFF’s decision to focus its messaging around land and jobs. These resonate given the country’s history of black land dispossession and stubbornly high unemployment, especially among young people.


Electoral performance


The EFF was founded as a political party in July 2013 following the expulsion of its leader Julius Malema from the ANC in 2012. Malema had been president of the ANC Youth League before being expelled for misconduct.


The EFF went on to garner 1.2 million votes in 2014, and 25 seats in parliament. Come the 2019 national election, it won 44 seats in parliament with just under 1.9 million votes.


The strength of the EFF is greatest in the North West province, where it garnered 17.9% of the vote in the 2019 national general elections. This is followed by Gauteng (13.53%) and Limpopo provinces (13.14%).


It is the official opposition in North West, Limpopo and Mpumalanga, where it got 11.51%. It continues to battle in the Western Cape (4.1%) and Eastern Cape (7.72%). Its share of the vote in KwaZulu-Natal increased from 1.97% in 2014 to 9.96% in 2019.


In the 2021 local elections, the party received 10.31%, mainly replicating its 2019 national results.


Ideology, strategy and tactics


Our analysis sought to understand the drivers of the EFF’s growth and its role in the party system. We analysed the ideology of the party and its strategy and tactics as stated in its electoral documents.


Ideologically, the party’s 2013 founding manifesto states that it


draws inspiration from the broad Marxist-Leninist tradition and Fanonian schools of thought in their analyses of the state, imperialism, culture and class contradictions in every society.


It positions itself as “anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist” and opposes what it calls the “neoliberal agenda” of the ANC.


The EFF declares that it is a radical and militant economic emancipation movement, rooted in popular grassroots formations and struggles. These include workers’ movements, NGOs, community-based organisations and lobby groups.


In a bid to position itself as a viable radical alternative to the ANC, the EFF has used “grievance exploitation”, radical posturing, agenda setting and framing in its strategic arsenal. Inequality, racialised land ownership patterns, persistent racism, unemployment and other issues are the main grievances the party has exploited.


It has done this through political communication and theatrics in parliament – including wearing the uniforms of workers, disrupting proceedings and chanting slogans – as well as the issues it has chosen to fight for in “the streets”, social media, the courts and party events.


It has had skirmishes with allegedly racist companies, white farmers and schools, and many other opponents that help drive its narrative.


The EFF’s success in the North West, Mpumalanga and Limpopo appears to have a lot to do with the party’s rhetoric on the mining sector, which is prominent in these provinces. The party’s strategic political communication portrays it as fighting for oppressed mine workers or host communities in these areas.


Its overtures in Marikana, the site of the 2012 massacre of striking mineworkers by police, attest to this.


Additionally, Limpopo is the home base of the founders of the party, Julius Malema and his deputy Floyd Shivambu. Founder constituencies tend to contribute significantly to a party’s success in South Africa. For instance, the Inkatha Freedom Party and the National Freedom Party are strong in KwaZulu Natal, where they were formed and their leaders originate.


Our findings show that EFF supporters among students who had come from the ANC cited corruption and failure to deliver on promises as their reasons for changing. Those who had shifted from the Democratic Alliance were drawn by the appeal of the EFF as a more radical alternative.


Looking forward


In our view the party appears to have lost some momentum in terms of its political communication strategy after the fall of former President Jacob Zuma in February 2018. It has also made some tactical mistakes. For example, it started calling President Cyril Ramaphosa corrupt and similar to Zuma, without proof.


Moreover, South Africa has a number of new parties that will be standing in the 2024 elections. They include ActionSA, Build One South Africa and Rise Mzansi. They may present an alternative to the ANC on the good governance front without the radical politics of the EFF or the race politics of the DA.


The elections will show whether the alternatives have a significantly negative impact on the EFF and its ability to present itself as a long term alternative to the ANC.The Conversation


Ongama Mtimka, Lecturer, Nelson Mandela University and Gary Francis Prevost, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, College of Saint Benedict & Saint John’s University


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Greg Abolo

Blogger at The Oasis Reporters.

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