JULIUS Malema gave us all something to think about when he announced that he and his Economic Freedom Fighters platform would agitate for radical economic policy change outside the African National Congress (ANC). The announcement by the former ANC Youth League president was unexpected, and some of his best former allies were dispatched to pooh-pooh him and his plans even before he got off the ground. Whether it likes it or not, the ANC has already been forced to react.

Much like Agang SA, Malema hasn’t started off by announcing a new political party. Instead, he released a statement that dissed nearly everyone in the tripartite alliance. The ANC has a "right-wing, neo-liberal and capitalist agenda that has kept the majority of our people on the margins of South Africa’s economy". The South African Communist Party "has been swallowed into reform politics of patronage and will never regain integrity to pursue real working-class struggles any time soon" and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) is, apparently, on its way down the same path.

"The ANC Youth League has been turned into a lapdog and sent around to repeat what the ANC leadership says, and puppet youth league leaders are rewarded with Cabinet posts and other perks to sustain their puppet status," the statement said.

The Economic Freedom Fighters will hold consultative forums around the country to discuss what is to be done.

If Malema is hoping to exploit divisions within the tripartite alliance, he couldn’t have picked a better time. Recent history suggests the best time to strike at the ANC from within is just after the election of a party president. The re-election of President Jacob Zuma had serious ramifications for his losers. Kgalema Motlanthe has been all but cast into the wilderness. People such as Fikile Mbalula, Cassel Mathale and Paul Mashatile have equally jeopardised their careers (for as long as Zuma and his allies are in power).

In Cosatu, clear divisions have emerged this year as attacks against general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi have grown increasingly sharp. His resolve to continue criticising the Zuma presidency from within the alliance has raised the ire of many of his fellow trade unionists, including Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini and the National Union of Mineworkers.

And yet, it seems extremely unlikely that the losers of Mangaung will leave the ANC to join Malema. The basis of their disagreement with Zuma was hardly ideological to begin with. The chances of repeating the success of the Congress of the People by encouraging a mass exodus from the ANC are low.

What is far more interesting from an electoral perspective are the seven principles supported by Malema’s group. These are:

1. Expropriation of South Africa’s land without compensation for equal redistribution.

2. Nationalisation of mines, banks and other strategic sectors of the economy.

3. Building state and government capacity, which will lead to the abolishment of tenders.

4. Free quality education, healthcare, houses and sanitation.

5. Massive protected industrial development to create millions of sustainable jobs.

6. Massive development of the African economy and advocating for a move from reconciliation to justice.

7. Open, accountable government and society without fear of victimisation by state police.

This is the basic template of the revolution from within that Malema tried to ignite while he still had the ANC Youth League. He succeeded in taking the issue of expropriation without compensation and nationalisation from the ANC scrap heap and forced it (quite literally) onto the agenda at the 2010 national general council of the party. The ruling party commissioned a study into it, which eventually dismissed the idea. The adoption of the National Development Plan at Mangaung signalled the final defeat of those who wanted to radicalise ANC economics.

Much of Malema’s support was based on a vaguely defined cult of personality that saw him as the champion of the forgotten youth and marginalised poor. When he still enjoyed the protection of South Africa’s most popular party, it was difficult to tell whether his immense popularity was due to that, or perhaps because of the acceptance of his populist ideas.

For the record, I believe Malema dangerously oversimplifies the solutions to our harsh economic reality. But he does articulate a need for the ANC to be more attuned to the needs of the poorest and most marginalised. The recession has made life worse for many people and the ruling party is struggling to cope.

At a time like this, though, simple politics hold a certain charm. And I think this could be a very useful stress test for the country, even if it only forces the ANC to react to minimise Malema’s potential influence at the ballot box. That reaction could be to raise an even more radical and loud youth leader from within its ranks, but I seriously doubt that it wants to try that again.

For Malema, the test is simple. He has long claimed that people are drawn to his ideas, not just to his personality. It’s time to prove it.