Leader and commander-in-chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters Julius Malema in full party uniform. File picture: Nic Bothma/EPA
Any political party that wants to remain relevant going into the future needs to invest in its youth. Added to that, the party needs to carefully manage its succession planning so that the second layer of leadership is ready to take over as and when the need arises.

The ANC, at least up to the party’s elective conference in December, ignored both imperatives. By expelling former party youth league president Julius Malema and his close followers, the ANC lost traction with young people.

The 54th party conference also chose ANC unity over ensuring that the next layer of leadership had popular support that would be able to ward off the EFF challenge in the next election cycle or two.

All this at a time when Malema, as leader of the EFF, is fast gaining momentum as the most influential politician in the country after President Cyril Ramaphosa. The president has only the advantage of appealing to a more diverse base than Malema’s young, black supporters.

After that, things start to look up for Malema. For example, he has more than 1.8million followers on Twitter compared to Ramaphosa’s 180000. In fairness to Ramaphosa, his account is newer than Malema’s. The president’s account also lacks a human touch and is boring.

That said, there are upwards of 1.6million more people who want to hear what Malema has to say than what the president has to say on Twitter. Yes, a lot of Malema’s followers are politically opposed to him and would never vote for him. Still, they care what he says.

At the time of the 2016 American presidential election, Donald Trump had 10million Twitter followers. That in a country with greater internet access than South Africa. Trump obtained just over 62million votes at the polls. If the same formula, albeit unscientific, were to be applied to Malema’s possible votes, it is clear that the ANC has a problem on its hands.

Malema’s social media popularity is, ironically, in part being fuelled by the ANC. The EFF leader is always first with ANC news, and he tells his followers first what is happening inside top-level ANC meetings where sometimes only the Top Six meet.

Armed with the leaks, he breaks the news, and at the same time he sets the agenda for the discussions on social media.

Apart from the convenient and helpful leaks from the ANC top brass, Malema is an interesting fellow anyway. The animated way in which he speaks, the fact that he doesn’t sensor himself and that he has a black belt in sound bites makes him a commanding speaker.

Another headache for the ANC is that young people are generally apathetic to politics in general and to the ANC in particular. This is sometimes discernible on eNCA quizzes that young people often flunk. As late as last year, a lot of participants didn’t know who then-deputy president Ramaphosa was.

The same young people know who Malema is and are greatly influenced by him. This was one of the findings of the Nation’s Voice survey conducted by Ask Afrika in association with the University of Pretoria.

This reveals the EFF’s strategy, which is anchored in the party growing its own timber. The EFF is steadily increasing its support among young people, and they will sweep it to power eventually unless the ANC does something about it. Are ANC overtures to Malema that which the ANC must do?

Back to the December ANC conference. For the position of deputy president and secretary-general the party elected provincial leaders in David Mabuza and Ace Magashule. The two are undoubtedly popular in their respective provinces of Mpumalanga and Free Stae, and arguably inside party structures. After that, it’s downhill for the two.

The Nation’s Voice survey also revealed that the Mpumalanga provincial government, which Mabuza led till recently, enjoys the highest approval ratings by residents. Second on the list is Magashule’s Free State government.

Outside their respective provinces, Mabuza and Magashule are not so popular. At the December conference, both of them needed a push from the supporters of former presidential candidate and Minister in the Presidency Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma to ascend to their party positions.

Social media analysis conducted around the conference revealed that the two were less popular than their rivals Lindiwe Sisulu and Senzo Mchunu, respectively.

Compounding matters for the ANC is that Magashule may soon have problems with the law.

His government offices were raided by the Hawks last week, related to the scandal surrounding the Estina dairy project, where millions of rand allocated for the upliftment of poor black farmers was allegedly channelled to the much despised Gupta family. Magashule has repeatedly admitted that his son works for the fugitive family.

Ramaphosa is almost guaranteed to win the 2019 elections for the ANC and perhaps the 2024 poll as well. He has been gaining traction with voters of all races and cultural backgrounds. His rise in popularity happens at the time when the main opposition DA has problems of its own.

Western Cape residents are the second most displeased with their provincial and local governments. The majority of those who are unhappy are coloured and black. That happens at a time when the DA has a black leader in Mmusi Maimane. It doesn’t look like the DA will do better at the polls anytime soon.

This means that the 2029 elections may well be between Mabuza for the ANC and Malema for the EFF. If such a face-off were to happen today, Malema would be the firm favourite.

As deputy president, Mabuza does not have a firm platform to build his profile on. Former deputy presidents Jacob Zuma, Kgalema Motlanthe and Ramaphosa will tell you how overrated the position’s influence in the state is.

Mabuza would have been better off taking on a high-profile ministry which he could turn around and score personal points with voters. Now that he has to wear a suit every day to spend time at the Union Buildings and lead government business in Parliament, he will find that it is difficult to outshine Malema, who always knows how to steal the limelight from the unlikeliest of situations.

Mabuza is famous for well-calculated political moves and forging alliances that serve him. It is not far-fetched that his overtures to Malema are meant to have the younger man back in the ANC so that they could run for the ANC presidency in 2027 as president and deputy.

It could also be that the ANC wants Malema back in the ANC fold where he would be subjected to party discipline. That would force him to tone down his rhetoric, especially on land. This is one issue that effortlessly divides blacks and whites and may well start affecting the country as an investment destination.

Through the notion of the expropriation of land without compensation, Malema has proved his influence. He championed the idea several years ago while in the ANC, and the latter rejected it. However, at the December conference the party took a resolution favourable to the idea.

It remains unlikely Malema will return to the ANC. Last year Mabuza made the same call. The EFF strongly rejected the invitation, calling Mabuza a kleptomaniac.

* @Makhosini is a public relations strategist and founder of the @NationsVoiceZA initiative.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Star