The leader of South Africa’s radical opposition EFF party has vowed that his supporters will increasingly seize unoccupied land to put pressure on the government to redistribute land to black people.
Julius Malema, head of the anti-capitalist Economic Freedom Fighters party, warned that poor, young South Africans felt abandoned by the country’s post-apartheid politics since the end of white-minority rule in 1994.
Land reform has become the country’s fiercest battleground ahead of elections next year, when President Cyril Ramaphosa will try to revive fading support for the ruling ANC party.
“It’s a completely new generation running out of patience,” Malema told AFP in an interview at the downtown Johannesburg headquarters of the EFF, which he founded in 2013 after being ejected from the ANC.
“The EFF came at the right time because it was able to amass all this energy into a party to agitate for economic struggle,” he said.
The EFF won just over 8% in the 2016 local elections, and hopes to make a major breakthrough in the 2019 general election by tapping into frustration among millions of young and poor South Africans.
“The EFF said to our people — the most practical way to get the land is to occupy the unoccupied land to put pressure on the state, and it has worked,” Malema said.
“Now the state and the owners of the land are beginning to say ‘maybe we should do something’“.
Unemployment nationwide is about 28%, with youth unemployment topping 50% in some areas.
Malema, 37, is renowned for his fiery speeches and attacks on whites as he builds a growing support base among South Africa’s poor.
But his party’s flagship stance of demanding radical land reform has been overshadowed by Ramaphosa’s recent announcement that the constitution would be changed to explicitly allow for the expropriation of land without compensation.
The government’s policy spooked foreign investors — and threatened to steal the EFF’s thunder.
“Cyril says this today and says something else tomorrow, depending on where he is speaking,” Malema said, describing Ramaphosa’s new land redistribution policy as “fake“.
“We say the same thing all the time, and they keep on changing.
“The EFF is the only relevant party in South Africa today — we are the most influential political party through ideas.” According to Ramaphosa, whites make up 8% of the South African population and possess 72% of farms, while blacks are 80% of the population but have only 4% of farms.
Malema said he had led land seizures near his home in the northeastern city of Polokwane, with more than 3,000 families settled on unused land whose owner lives in Canada.
“He came back and wanted to start negotiating,” Malema said, predicting land seizures in South Africa would not be violent — unlike in neighbouring Zimbabwe where brutal farm invasions wrecked the economy under Robert Mugabe.
“There won’t be violence. I think (white farmers) want to give up land as both black and white are talking to each other about how we can resolve the land issue.
“We are going to share the land, but it must first be owned by the state and reallocated back to all of us — black and white.” Such inclusive talk may do little to calm fears among potential investors and wealthy South Africans over Malema’s ambitions, and he still relishes taking a dig at the privileged lives that many white citizens enjoy.
He suggested white people could not emigrate to Europe as they can not afford domestic staff abroad.
“In 1994, people thought white people were going to leave South Africa. They are still here. Where will they go?” he said.
“White people with money in South Africa are poor people in Europe. They are so used to being fed and looked after, they can’t clean after themselves.”