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The EFF's Balancing Act: Domestic Appeal & African Ambitions

Authors: Kira Alberts & Fikile Monareng

The EFF has quickly become a prominent (and controversial) South African political party. But are they sidelining their transnational ambitions as they prepare for the 2024 elections?

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This article was originally published on 15 August 2023 in the newsletter "Democracy Delivered" of the Centre for Research on Democracy (CREDO) at Stellenbosch University. Kira Alberts and Fikile Monareng are 2023 bursary recipients of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. Access the newsletter by subscribing here 



The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a controversial and radical populist party, emerged on the South African political landscape just a decade ago, marketing itself to voters as a radical, leftist, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist movement.


Since then, the EFF has swayed many South African voters and has managed to draw support from across Africa. Within this relatively short period the EFF has become the third-largest party and a significant player in South African politics, having obtained 6.35% of the vote in the 2014 elections and 10.80% in the 2019 elections.

The EFF is a breakaway group from the African National Congress (ANC). It was founded and is led by the former leader of the African National Congress Youth League, Julius Malema, after he was expelled from the ANC. Under Malema’s leadership the party quickly gained popularity with its far-left, pan-Africanist, and Marxist–Leninist rhetoric. 


In the years since its inception, the EFF has seemingly managed to hold its own, becoming somewhat infamous for its extremist rhetoric and fascist tendencies and gaining far more support than previous offshoot parties such as the PAC, UDM, and Cope. The party now boasts a membership base of over 1.085.800 members and is known for its ability to rile up its supporters and have them take to the streets in protest.


In August 2023, the EFF hosted an extravagant celebration of the party’s 10-year anniversary at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg. The event made headlines when Malema led the crowd in a controversial struggle song which prominently includes the call to "kill the Boer" (a reference to South Africa's white Afrikaans-speaking population).


Given the support for the EFF’s populist rhetoric, it might appear that they will be assured of a good share of the vote come South Africa's 2024 national elections. A poll conducted in March by the Social Research Fund, however, indicates that support for the EFF may drop to between 6-8%. Given that the party has only recently launched its 2024 election campaign, these results must be considered with some caution. Regardless, the poll does raise an interesting question - why the decline? 


Among the possible reasons for the diminishing support could be skepticism over the party's ability to govern effectively, concerns over its radical economic proposals, allegations of corruption, its inflammatory rhetoric and penchant for violence, and the party's support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.


There is a lively and ongoing debate over each of these topics, but this article seeks to spotlight an aspect of the EFF that is often missed - the party’s transnational ambitions. The EFF, despite being founded in South Africa, now has party branches in Liberia, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, as well as some smaller factions in Eswatini, Nigeria, and Botswana. This gives the EFF a unique position as the only political party in Africa that can boast branches outside of its country of origin.


Among its branches outside South Africa, the only one still holding seats at the national level is the Namibian Economic Freedom Fighters (NEFF). Overall, the growth of foreign branches has been showing a downward trend in recent years. The EFF, once very vocal about the idea of a borderless Africa and its role as an “African liberator”, seems to be losing its foreign ambitions.


In fact, there have been allegations of xenophobia as the party attempted to bring down the number of foreign nationals employed in South Africa, indicating that it has strayed quite far from its initial cross-continental ambition. One reason behind the EFF’s reduced enthusiasm for becoming the 'African liberator’ could be ascribed to the growing ideological disagreements that could put off South African voters. This contrast is evident in how the EFF and NEFF approach LGBTQ+ rights. While the EFF expresses support for the queer community, the NEFF stands in strong opposition it. Another possible reason might be that the EFF has simply resolved to focus its resources on growing its South Africa votership only. 


Whatever the reason may be, the shift away from its pan-Africanist movement is clear and while it is not likely to be the main reason for the EFF’s apparent lack of growth, it certainly contributes to it. This is a welcome shift in the party’s strategy as further spreading the EFF’s populist rhetoric across the African continent may have serious counter democratic consequences.

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