A few weeks ago, journalist Victoria Schneider and photographer Jonathan Wood set off on a trip around South Africa to follow Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). In the months running up to the elections, Malema has been campaigning in South Africa’s poorest areas to convince people that he and his followers are a viable alternative to the governing African National Congress (ANC).

Malema went to places off the beaten track, places that can’t be found on Google maps or with a GPS. Spellbinding and eloquent, Malema the orator managed to captivate the crowds. His followers are mostly the youth who feel betrayed by the ANC, which claims sole ownership of the liberation struggle.

Schneider and Wood documented a section of the electorate who appear to realise that there is a new political alternative, a young party that is disorganised but vibrant, led by a man who wants to become the leader of a new South Africa. What follows is Schneider’s diary of the weeks on the road with Malema and EFF. At the bottom of the post, you will find a gallery of Jonathan Wood’s photographs.

 

Wednesday April 16, Thaba Nchu

It’s a quiet morning in Thaba Nchu, the first stop on the EFF’s tour around the Free State. The town consists of a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, a Shoprite, a bottle store and a tombstone retailer. Bob Marley’s Redemption Song is playing in a nearby car.

A few hundred people have gathered in the open space where Julius Malema is scheduled to speak. Most are trying to get a spot under the tent that has been set up. Loud music is playing while local EFF members are setting up the stage.

Half an hour passes. Then an hour. People don’t seem to be getting annoyed with the delay. I meet a group of guys in their early twenties and ask whether they support the EFF. Alvin, the tallest of them with a gold-capped front tooth, says he is probably not going to vote. “These people are all the same,” says Alvin. “They are power hungry and greedy.”

“But we’re going to listen to Malema today and what he says about change,” he adds. Alvin has a matric but can’t find a job. “What about us? We’re struggling”, he says. “It seems like everything was better when Madiba was still president. Now it feels like we’re going backwards − we don’t want to live under apartheid.”

Two hours later Malema and his brigade of red beret-wearing fighters arrive, on a horse-pulled cart. People are going crazy at the sight of him. “Juju, Juju, Juju, Juju,” the crowd hollers. The fighters inside the human circle are raising their fists, basking in the attention.

EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi climbs on to the stage and prepares the crowd for the speech. “Amandla!” he screams into the mic. “Ngawethu!” the crowd shouts back at him.

Malema takes to the stage to rapturous applause. He speaks in English and Sesotho, the language he’s more comfortable in. He talks about hospitals that are not working and grandmothers who don’t get a large enough pension. He talks about how everything will be better when people get their land back. He talks about freedom. He makes fun of Jacob Zuma’s swimming pool and Cyril Ramaphosa’s buffalo. He delivers his most important issues by cracking jokes that make the whole crowd roar with laughter. He wraps up his speech by talking about the importance of remembering Marikana. It’s powerful stuff.

From Thaba Nchu we head to Botshabelo, a township about an hour away. Hundreds of people have arrived to hear Malema speak. He roars into the microphone, “Long live EFF, long live”. He follows his cry with, “Down with the African National Criminals – down!” and starts to deliver his speech. “We’re voting for the bread to be placed on the table,” he says. “You must never lose hope.” “People are not believing in Mandela anymore. You must change your vote. Give us five years.”

He repeats these words in Mangaung later that day. We’re on another football field. This time he speaks to a sea of red berets; thousands of supporters and members have gathered. He takes this opportunity to keep emphasising that the EFF is not a personality cult, contrary to his face staring back from all the red EFF bags, lanyards and T-shirts. Even when he leaves, the young followers remain on the field, singing, taking one another’s photographs.

 

Thursday April 17, Bethlehem

There are two more rallies on the diary before Malema leaves to spend the Easter weekend in Limpopo. They are scheduled for Bethlehem and QwaQwa. Some of the voters who came to see Malema near Bethlehem claim to have lost hope.

We meet Tumelo Mokete, a man in his early thirties, wearing a red beret and dark sunglasses. “I don’t have a job”, he says, “but I don’t want money. I want to work”. He says he joined the EFF last year.

“Look at the ANC,” he says. “The ANC is fatter than me – they are all millionaires.” He touches his stomach to make his point. “Malema knows the truth about the ANC. That’s why he’s fighting against them now.”

To entertain the waiting crowds, Mandisa Makhesini, the EFF’s premier candidate for the Free State, takes over the microphone. “Viva Julius Malema! Viva!” she screams.

A bit later she says with confidence that the EFF is going to get more than 50% of the vote. I ask how they selected the locations: “It’s a mix of communities with weak or strong support. Thaba Nchu yesterday was strong; QwaQwa is going to be weak. In those places it is about reaching even the smallest number of people – even if it’s only 50.”

When Malema finally arrives, he delivers a powerful speech, talking to the dire living conditions of the men and women he addresses. Although it is his fourth rally in two days, he doesn’t seem to have lost any energy. Not in Bethlehem. And probably not in QwaQwa, but we don’t find out, as we don’t make it to QwaQwa. The GPS doesn’t find the “sports ground next to Ambag College” and attempts to get hold of the EFF national spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi remain unsuccessful.

 

Tuesday April 22, Johannesburg

A few days later, the EFF holds a press conference on the top floor of the Orion Building in hip Braamfontein near the Joburg CBD. It’s the day after Easter and the day after the SABC refused to air the EFF’s election advert. Julius Malema looks tired. He is half an hour late, which is not surprising anymore.

With a concentrated look, he starts reading the press release, word for word. Usually so articulate, today he looks like a school kid during a reading exam, chuckling when he mispronounces a word – “Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry”.

After he’s made it through his awkward recital, he is back to his eloquent self. The first question comes from Oscar, who introduces himself as a community member. He came all the way from Soweto into the centre of the city to sneak into the press conference and ask his question.

He’s worried about an article in The Sunday Times that was published the day before, in which Malema was described as wearing expensive Louis Vuitton shoes at his rallies. Malema responds: “I don’t know if they want Julius Malema to arrive on a bicycle.”

“Their newspaper is not even read by people,” he says. “It’s read by elite, by the white elite. The Sunday Times sends a team everywhere we go, but they never tell our story,” he says. “We move to the most difficult areas where they might think there are no people and yet we find people. There was nothing negative to tell,” he says. “They’re all shocked, all disappointed. We’re not a Minnie Mouse as they thought we would be,” he says. “We’re a serious organisation.”

Malema points out that the EFF is a new party that has built its existing structures in less than a year. “Remember that,” he says. “We’re an organisation that exists everywhere and we are not favoured by anyone. We rely on our people,” he says. “We don’t have posters for our meetings – no adverts – people just go around telling people the EFF is coming. Imagine if we had adverts. The only thing we have is the message and yet we are still the party of influence – a party you cannot avoid, a party with nothing.

“Yesterday I was in Limpopo. I went to four or five meetings, hundreds of kilometers away from each other,” he says. “How can it be news that someone is driving a Mercedes-Benz? We are going to be told: Why are you not staying in Alexandra with the people? We don’t want them to stay in shacks – that’s why we’re not staying in shacks.

“We want to take them out of the shacks, but how do you want to inspire them if you go and live in shacks yourself? They want to get out of this situation; they don’t want people to come and join them. What a stupidity.”

Malema answers the journalists’ questions for about an hour. He is articulate and confident, slamming the girl in the front row from eNCA, slamming the SABC, and again The Sunday Times – all the people he labels “white elitist media” despite making it clear that he has no racist intentions.

“You must stop worrying about blacks and whites”, he says. “White people are most welcome here in South Africa. We’re so used to each other; we are now dating each other, we have white girlfriends and boyfriends – you are going to fight with people if you drive the girlfriends and friends away.

“It’s not a racial struggle,” he says. “I always emphasise that especially the Afrikaners, they only have one passport. They are loyal, they are patriotic, they love this country and actually the EFF is going to protect their agriculture.”

As soon as the last word is said, everyone runs up to stick microphones in Malema’s face. We just want to know whether they’re going to Durban as planned. They are, early the next morning. So Durban it is.

 

Wednesday April 23, Malukazi township, Durban

We are waiting for Ndlozi to share Malema’s schedule with us, but the national spokesperson isn’t being very communicative. He’s not responding to text messages and he’s not answering his phone. Starting to get irritated, we hang out at the promenade; it’s a beautiful day, after all.

An hour passes, two hours. Then, out of the blue, a guy in a red beret rushes past – it turns out to be Vusumuzi Khoza, the EFF’s convenor for KwaZulu-Natal, who is heading to the rally.

“You must call Mbuyiseni”, he says. I explain that he is not answering his phone. “I have the schedule here. I can forward it to you – what’s your email address?”

It’s past 1pm. Looking at the schedule, we realise we’ve missed the first event, so we head off to the second meeting on the diary, scheduled for 4pm. It’s in Malukazi, an area in the township of Umlazi.

“He must get out of there before it’s dark,” Khoza tells us. There’s no electricity in Malukazi, and because of the strong loyalty to the ANC in KZN, safety is a concern for the local organising team.

It’s been raining and the ground in the settlement is covered with puddles the size of small lakes. There are no paved roads, no brick houses – just shacks built on the hillsides. We arrive ahead of time.

Again, hundreds of people have gathered to hear Malema speak. The people, most of them younger than 35, have lined the path that goes up the slope. Children are running around.

We meet Princess from the Eastern Cape, who stays in Malukazi. She’s wearing a red beret and is all excited about the “commander in chief’s” visit.

“He speaks the truth”, she says. “People try to bring him down because he says things they don’t want to hear. He will bring change.” About an hour after the scheduled starting time, I receive a message from Ndlozi with the exact same schedule Khoza sent earlier.

Five minutes later, he arrives with Malema in a white Mercedes. The crowds go wild and then it gets quiet, much quieter than the week before during the Free State tour.

Malema doesn’t speak Zulu, which makes it difficult to deliver his messages than in the Free State where he could easily address the crowd in Sesotho.

And then there’s the ANC to consider – this is its territory, which makes Malema more careful with his words. He will not win the crowd over by cracking jokes at Zuma’s expense, so he speaks about money. He promises to double social grants, to double the grants for grandmothers from R1 300 to R2 600. He promises free this and free that. He promises jobs, a better life for all.

 

Thursday April 24, Durban

According to the schedule, the first meeting is supposed to take place at 10am in Mkhumbane township. On our way, we receive a message from Khoza that the event is cancelled. He seems to have taken on the role of spokesperson.

We arrive at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Howard College just before Malema’s speech is scheduled to start at 1pm. The lecture hall is packed, and we struggle to make our way through the crowd that has amassed in front of the building, trying to get a spot inside to see Malema.

It’s hot, stuffy, dark and incredibly loud.

Instead of red EFF berets, the hall is full of yellow T-shirts. The ANC Youth League has occupied the entire gallery and is singing struggle songs. “There’s a history of violence in South Africa,” says Mlondi Vilakazi, a political sciences student at UKZN. “Politics in this country is not about issues, it’s about emotions.

“If you look at them, if you went up to them now and asked them what they’re protesting against, I am sure they wouldn’t be able to give you an answer. They’re just following what they’ve been told to do,” he says. “They have been sent to disrupt the meeting.”

I ask Mlondi what he thinks about the EFF leader. “Malema is raising serious issues that our current leaders are not raising because they are in comfortable positions. Something must happen, even if not with the EFF. Something must happen in this country – we need change,” he says. “You see, a lot of these people here are students, but 50% won’t find a job when they leave university. Something is wrong in South Africa. Something is coming,” he says ominously.

“The EFF’s manifesto is based on theories, leftist politics. It cares about the poor. Maybe it can give that push,” he says. “The ANC promised that as well, though.”

“For many people, nothing is out there for them. They have no hope.” I ask why those people from the ANC are so opposed to their new political opponent. “It’s about being raised in a kind of society where you came together when times were hard and you sang and danced together,” he says. “We’re 50 years behind when it comes to voting on issues.

“Zuma might be popular, but he doesn’t have a vision,” says Vilakazi. “If you go to bed and think about it – the fact that he spent R250 million of the people’s money on his private residence – you know that what’s happening in the government is wrong.”

I ask him what he thinks has to happen in South Africa. “More parties must rise up,” he says. “The EFF must just stay away from scandals now. They must lay the groundwork. We’ve been exposed to a capitalist system for 300 years, ever since the white men arrived here. I guess in a few years’ time the EFF can maybe get 35% of the vote. Of course, it’s hard …”

The EFF team arrives. We’ve received a text that they’ve been outside for a while, planning on how to drive away the ANC disrupters with the help of the police.

Ndlozi comes on to the stage and tries to make himself heard, but he’s having trouble. He and his two-man, red-beret-wearing brigade leave the stage and fight their way through the heated crowds to the middle of the hall, where people in yellow-shirts are shouting and waving their fists.

Determined to chase them out, Ndlozi marches towards them but is stopped by an assailant in yellow. The police enter the fray while members of the two parties push one another around. There is chaos in the crammed hall. The exits are blocked, and students and lecturers are arguing with ANC members, asking them to let Malema talk. It seems like the students who have come to listen to Malema out of interest are taking the EFF’s side just because their fellow students are misbehaving. Ndlozi and his small army then make their way upstairs into the gallery. Jono tells me later that the mob wanted to close the door and lock the three men in.

Lubna Nadvi, a political sciences lecturer, steps on to the stage and tries to calm down the people over the microphone. But she can’t make herself heard because it’s so loud in the hall. I have to read her lips to understand what she’s screaming: “You – have – to – allow – everybody – to – be – heard!” she screams. “The – university – is – not – tied – to – any – political – party! I – am – asking – you – to – let – the – speaker – come – on – the – stage – and – speak!”

The ANC supporters start to sing even louder in Zulu. “You’re a student with no brain! You’re EFF.”

“The ANC tries to dictate the political discourse in KZN”, says Nadvi after leaving the stage. “They shouldn’t be allowed to do so. There’s no respect among the students.”

Then Malema arrives. Some people start cheering, others start booing. In his neat checked shirt he stands on the stage and looks around, taking in the situation. He shakes his head.

One of the fighters starts singing Dubula Dubula, (Shoot, Shoot). It’s the moment Malema takes control; something changes in his posture, in his face. With a sudden movement he lifts his arms and forms a gun with his two hands, his eyes fixed on the youngsters in the gallery. He points the gun at them.

Paff! Paff! Paff! Paff!

I am standing between arguing students – some guys who came to listen to Malema and a guy from the Youth League, Andile Ndlovu, a literature and political sciences student, who is shouting at them hysterically. One of the students says to him: “If they want to engage they must bring Zuma and engage.” Andile screams: “He is a communist! You know what communists do? They say there is no God! I don’t want him to speak, he is a liar. This man is full of lies, no one must listen to him! He says that a domestic worker should earn R5 000 a month – how does he want to do that? Where’s that money coming from?” he shouts. “We’re going to lose votes! We’re going to lose votes!”

Malema asks the students to follow him outside. The students run up over the stage and squeeze through the two narrow doors leading out of the theatre. Malema waits on the stairs until everyone’s gathered.

The ANC supporters are held back by riot police a few metres away, trying to disrupt Malema’s speech with loud songs and protests. He talks for half an hour, elaborating on economic systems in Russia and Venezuela, on the necessity of land redistribution and free education. He makes the students scream with laughter when he jokes about Ramaphosa’s R18 million buffalo and the image of our 72-year-old president in a bathing suit.

After the speech I speak to a guy from the Youth League, Thanduxolo Sabelo, who is hanging out on the lawn with other people in yellow Zuma T-shirts. He tells me that the Youth League had in fact booked the theatre long before the EFF. “The problem began when the EFF came and started beating up our students.”

 

Same day, a few hours later, Ridgeview, Ward 29

The EFF has many virtues, but giving coherent directions is certainly not one of them. I call Khoza, who gives me Thembi Msane’s number, who in turn gives me directions that are utterly confounding: “You have to follow this road for a while, then you see a sign that says ‘Klaarwater’ – turn right. You see a church and a tavern named ‘Lunga’, then there is a church …” and so on. (Ndlozi is still not answering. After two and a half days and 30 unanswered calls, I begin to wonder how the EFF defines the word “communications” or “spokesperson”.)

An hour later, we’re still looking for Tafelkop village. There were two signs for Klaarwater. The first one was so faded that Msane has probably never noticed it.

The tavern called Lunga turns out to be Luganda, and the church is kilometres away, down the hill in the valley. We find it, though. This Tafelkop village is in the middle of Zululand. It’s picturesque, set amid beautiful, lush, green valleys. The road is not great but it is drivable.

We drive past a crowd of ANC supporters. We are told later that they tried to occupy the sports field where Malema is speaking and had to be removed by riot police. By the time we arrive at this place off the road in the middle of nowhere, the rally is halfway in. Malema is still speaking to a crowd of people who have gathered under a big white tent on a football pitch.

The field overlooks the whole valley. The sun is about to disappear behind the scattered clouds. People from all around the area have come. They live in mud houses with tin roofs and little toilet huts in the garden. Their lives are different from the lives of people in the shack settlements. And yet their problems are the same – no jobs, no future.

 

Friday April 25, Foreman Road informal settlement

I try to get hold of Ndlozi. Again, no answer. If he wasn’t so good at singing struggle songs and quoting Nietzsche and Foucault I’d have lost faith in him long ago.. I do get hold of Khoza, though, then Msane again. She is the EFF coordinator for KwaZulu-Natal and hooks me up with Godrich Gardee, who is in the field. Gardee, the national election campaign manager, says we must call Ndlozi. I explain.

“Ah, Mbuyiseni, he’s a very busy man,” he says, and explains the situation. They are considering calling off the meeting because of the geographical position of the venue. “There is a very steep slope and in case of any political clashes there would be no way to escape from down there. I’ll call you when I know more.”

After hours and dozens of unanswered phone calls, we find out that the meeting is on despite the security concerns. We are driving through what looks like one of the wealthier neighbourhoods of Durban. “This doesn’t look right,” I say to Jono. “It looks like a really rich area.”

We pick up the EFF member who has been waiting for us on the road. He knows where to go. Eventually we turn right on to a steep dirt path that is hardly visible from the main road. The informal settlement pops up like a wall on the opposite side. We park our car right at the bottom. I open the door and the stale smell of sewage and rubbish hits me. I am wearing sandals that sink into the wet ground. It hasn’t rained.

Malema is in the valley, speaking through a megaphone. (We are late, again. Ironically, and probably oblivious to his spokesperson’s failure to communicate, Malema will later ask Jono “why are you guys always late?”) Maybe 100 people have shown up, not as many as for other meetings. He addresses the people in English, with no translator.

He has a hard time making himself understood and keeps the speech rather short. People clap and cheer but seem sceptical. “They are afraid to be seen at an EFF rally,” says Lindela, a resident of Foreman Road. He has a shaved head and is wearing a Kaizer Chiefs jersey and blue jeans. He lives up near the top of the hill where housing conditions are slightly better, “but still terrible”, he says.

After Malema’s speech, a group of women shouts at me. “Mlungu!” they scream and laugh at me. “I want to see how they live,” I say through Lindela, who translates. They have all kinds of reservations, saying it’s too dangerous to go up there because it’s so steep and there are no paths and so many unsafe electricity cables. They don’t have formal electricity, just an illegal line. “Many people die,” they say. We go down into the valley, climbing over dirt and rubbish that has been rubbed into the soil and has become part of it.

“Zuma’s cow wouldn’t even fit into one of these shacks”, says Lindela, as we stop in front of a woman’s house. She opens the door – there’s nothing but a mattress and a plastic table with plastic bowls.

“The conditions are bad”, says one of the ladies. “You see?” I ask if they are going to vote for Malema. They nod. Lindela says he is still thinking about voting “for each and every political party”. “Once they are in power they do whatever they want,” he says. “That’s why we are hesitating. Every political leader, his speech is good. Implementing is always a different thing. But maybe this guy can change something,” he says. “He has a vision for South Africa. The people must be emancipated from poverty. I don’t want to be rich, but I want to maintain my family. If the government can help us create better jobs, we won’t worry them about houses – we want to build our own houses.”

 

Same day at a Transit camp, Lamontville

“Fuck you, Zuma! Fuck you!” The lady next to me is upset. Christina, a petite, 27-year-old woman came to the EFF meeting with her two-year-old son. “Eight years we’ve been living here – eight years and no change.”

She has to raise her high-pitched voice as the noise around us grows – Malema has just made his appearance in the transit camp near Lamontville. “I am tired of this man Zuma – we’re over him.” I ask her if she believes in Malema. “We need change – why not him? We’ve got nothing to lose,” she says.

Christina doesn’t work. Her husband provides for the family. They have a son who goes to school. Most of the people in this settlement used to live in shelters. According to the residents, eight years ago they were moved to containers and corrugated iron houses, and promised RDP houses within six months.

Some were moved but the majority of them have remained in permanent transit on this field next to the highway. “This is not a place for children,” says Christina as Malema begins to speak.

He emphasises the importance of land, and, like everywhere else he has spoken, the men and women leave the rally enchanted. For, at the end of the day, the people Malema finds really don’t have much to lose.

 

All photographs by Jonathan Wood – Click on one of the photos to view them all in a gallery format 

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