The Economic Freedom Fighters continue to puzzle South Africans. They have been variously described as populist, fascist, Africanist, racial nationalist and an externalised faction of the African National Congress. Some regard them as little more than Julius Malema's personal political vehicle. No one has been misguided enough to categorise them as liberal, yet during the long haul in parliament to oust Jacob Zuma as President, they had no hesitation in pursuing legal action through the courts.
The EFF's most cited policies advocate the expropriation of land without compensation, ownership of all land by the state, and the nationalization of the strategic heights of the economy, notably the mining and finance, inclusive of the formation of a state bank. They are widely viewed as to the left of the ANC, even though they are dismissed as opportunist by both the South African Communist Party and the Congress of the South African Trade Unions, the organised left-wing of the ANC's tripartite alliance.
They are said, variously, to pitch their appeal to the poor, the dispossessed, the black middle class, the youth and the working class, some commentators suggesting that they try to be all things to all men (and women). Yet for some, like the Black First Land First movement of Andile Mngxitama, which describes itself as Pan-Africanist and revolutionary, the EFF is pseudo-revolutionary, little more than a pale reflection of the ANC. How you characterize the EFF would seem to follow from where you come from.
What is clearer than its precise political character is the impact that the EFF has had on South African politics. When it was created by Julius Malema in the wake of his being ejected from the ANC at the behest of Jacob Zuma, the EFF liked to portray itself as the vehicle of the country's underdogs opposed to the arrogance of its political and corporate elites, an image which it burnished through its championing of those killed by police at Marikana.
The overwhelming majority of South Africa's people are underdogs, so the EFF claimed it would win over 50 percent of the national vote in the 2014 election and form the new government.
It proceeded to run an effective electoral campaign, albeit with limited funds, yet its bluff was called when it won just over 6 percent of votes, largely from the provinces of the country's platinum belt and very limited support from elsewhere. Nonetheless, on the back of this performance, it won 25 seats in parliament and rapidly proved that this was enough to disrupt existing patterns of governance.
Why would Ramaphosa claim openly that he would welcome Malema back into the ANC fold if he did not reckon the EFF to be a serious electoral threat?
It rapidly outshone the DA in its demands that Zuma must be held to account for Nkandla; it challenged the staid procedures of parliament, seeking to block Zuma making his state of the nation speeches on the grounds that he had trashed the constitution, its representatives being thrown out of the chamber on different occasions for their pains; it forged coalitions with the DA following the 2016 local government elections, despite its hugely different policies, to displace the ANC from office in Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay; it shrilly decried state capture and pursued it through the courts.
Above all, it offered a rude challenge to the political settlement of 1994. While it has used the constitution to considerable effect, it voices the view of those who urge that it is the constitution which is blocking the route to radical economic transformation.
It has been widely said that an EFF without Zuma to decry is an EFF which has lost its ammunition. Yet why would Ramaphosa claim openly that he would welcome Malema back into the ANC fold if he did not reckon the EFF to be a serious electoral threat?
The EFF would have both much to gain as well as much to lose if it climbed back into the ANC womb. If it went back in, it would gain more direct influence, yet this would come at the expense in the eyes of many, of its becoming a sell-out.
Whatever it does, the populistic, fascistic, Africanist and racial nationalist currents to which it has given voice will not disappear from South African politics. But the EFF's ultimate triumph might be that they become firmly embedded within the ANC.
Roger Southall is Emeritus Professor in Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand