The Coded Clothes of South Africa's Economic Freedom Fighters

Will Julius Malema stage his revolution in red overalls, or Louis Vuitton loafers?
Julius Malema (center) and his supporters in their uniforms (Reuters)

Last week, a sea of red jumpsuits surfaced in Johannesburg. Nearly 300 supporters of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)—a self-declared Marxist-Leninist political party that has formed in opposition to the dominant African National Congress (ANC), and adopted red overalls as its uniform—gathered at the legislative building of South Africa’s Gauteng province. They were there to protest the expulsion of eight EFF members of the provincial legislature who were expelled from the building on July 1 for wearing the party uniform.

The EFF’s overalls are, in and of themselves, a radical political statement. According to party rhetoric, the jumpsuits are meant to express solidarity with the country’s domestic workers and manual laborers. Their red color represents a connection not only to communist parties past, but also to the blood of laborers, including 34 platinum miners who were massacred by police in Marikana in 2012, at the very site where the EFF announced its formation one year ago.

Though the EFF only won 6 percent of the vote in this year's general election, the party is quickly gaining momentum, and its message of wealth redistribution has mass appeal in a society that remains deeply unequal—with 10 percent of the population accounting for roughly half the nation's income, and 47 percent living below the poverty line.

Julius Malema, the EFF’s fiery leader, showed up at last week’s protest with his own twist on the uniform, combining the party’s trademark red shirt and red beret with a checkered Palestinian scarf, worn in support of Gaza’s besieged Palestinians. He looked every bit the part of a communist revolutionary.  

But Malema remains haunted by corruption allegations and a penchant for conspicuous material consumption. During a campaign stop in April, his advocacy for the poor rang hollow to the journalist Sibongakonke Shoba, who pointed out the literally glaring example of sunlight glinting off the buckles of his Louis Vuitton loafers, which retail for around $700. Journalists mocked Malema’s “bling shoes,” with one asking, in jest, if Malema was the “misunderstood Cinderella” of South African politics.

The gap between Malema’s rhetoric and dress has long invited critiques of the divisive politician as a champagne socialist. In 2010, when Malema was still making his name as an orator in the ANC’s Youth League, his Gucci suits and $24,000 Breitling watch often clashed with his populist message, which advocated for the nationalization of the country’s privately owned mines and the redistribution of its wealth and land. While his platform encompassed a number of causes that might, theoretically, appeal to the left, he alienated many supporters not only through his flamboyant style, but also through his blunt, boastful words, which at times crossed over into hate speech, according to his critics. His enthusiasm for leading sing-alongs of tunes like “Shoot the Boer” enraged the white Afrikaner minority, and his victim-shaming comments about a woman who had accused President Jacob Zuma of sexual assault enraged many others.   

Malema at the EFF party launch in 2013 (Reuters)

These incidents, along with Malema's frequent clashes with Zuma himself, eventually led to Malema’s expulsion from the ANC in 2011, at which point he claimed that he was "finished politically." Malema, who had been active within the ANC since he was nine years old, said he would instead devote himself to cattle-farming. "I have 20 cattle now," he said, in a modest statement of resignation, "we will breed them, take them to the abattoir, slaughter them, and then sell the meat."

Malema’s reputation suffered further damage soon afterward when a forensic audit of his assets suggested that he was receiving kickbacks from government contractors. According to the report, he was also spending more than $30,000 of those funds on designer clothes.

Yet even as Malema fell from his position of influence within the ANC, he continually worked to reinforce his connections to the party's more radical past. Before 2013, he hadn't had much success. When Malema cast his plans for nationalizing mines as a continuation of the Mandela family's legacy, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela's ex-wife, responded that she was not, like Malema, the type of populist who “exploits” the poor and uneducated in order to sustain “a luxury lifestyle and what we now call bling.” 

Malema’s connections to the Mandela family may be tenuous at best. But since his self-reinvention as the jumpsuit-clad leader of the EFF, Malema has proven increasingly skilled at using his own sense of style, both in rhetoric and in cloth, to his advantage—a skill he shares with Mandela.

At Mandela’s memorial service in 2013, his university classmate and supporter, George Bizos, remembered him as “the best dressed student, always.” Like Malema, Mandela often donned designer suits and shiny shoes as part of his everyday wardrobe. Yet Mandela never confined himself to Western dress. When the future president was arrested, in 1962, he chose to appear at his trial in traditional tribal dress, in order to symbolize his position “as a black man in a white man’s court.” His most iconic clothing choice came on the day that he stepped onto the parliament floor for the first time in 1994. Though Mandela wore a three-piece suit to his inauguration, he chose for his entry into parliament a distinctive silk batik shirt. The colorful "Madiba" shirt, and the 150 variations that were specially designed for him throughout his career, became a potent symbol of the post-apartheid government. And though the shirt was not considered traditional South African garb, it nonetheless came to represent the nation when the president traveled abroad, particularly when he sported a black version of the shirt during his first visit with the queen of England in 1995. 

Mandela wearing one of his signature "Madiba" shirts, seated between the tuxedo-clad duo of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and New Zealand Prime Minister James Bolger, along with Queen Elizabeth II, in 1995 (AFP/Getty Images)

Even after Mandela’s tenure as president, he continued to make calculated sartorial choices. In 2002, his decision to wear a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “HIV positive” served as a symbolic victory for the country’s AIDS activists. It also helped rescue Mandela’s own legacy given his reluctance to take action on the health crisis during his time in office (Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, continued to deny the viral spread of AIDS and prevented thousands of HIV-positive South Africans from accessing antiretroviral drugs).

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Zach Goldhammer is an editorial fellow with The Atlantic​.

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