A radical force for change?

With the next South African general election coming up (on a yet to be established date in April–July 2014), it is time to talk politics. On 28th of November, I attended the International Labour Research and Information Group’s (ILRIG) public forum on ‘Malema & the EFF: A force for radical change?’. Ashley Fataar, from ‘Keep Left’ (a small Trotskyist group in South Africa affiliated to the International Socialist Tendency led by the Socialist Workers Party of the UK) and Andrew Nash, representing ILRIG and the University of Cape Town (UCT), shared their views on the topic.

Julius Malema © AFP

Julius Malema © AFP

In July 2013, Julius Malema, former president of the ANC Youth League, formed a new political movement, the Economic Freedom Fighters, of which he declared himself ‘Commander in Chief’. Malema has often been dubbed a ‘populist firebrand’ and was convicted of hate speech in March 2010 and again in September 2011, for singing the song ‘Shoot the Boer’ (a popular liberation struggle song). In November 2011 he was found guilty of sowing divisions within the ANC and was suspended from the party for five years. Eventually, on 4 February 2012 he was expulsed from the ANC.

In addition to hate speech, Malema is facing a series of corruption-related charges including racketeering (arranging lucrative government contracts for cronies in return for kickbacks) and faces up to 15 years in prison. Although Malema was once a rising star in the ANC and a staunch supporter of president Zuma, he has since become one of Zuma’s most vociferous critics.

‘Economic Freedom in Our Life Time’

According to the ‘Founding Manifesto’ of the EFF, the movement’s main objective is ‘to attain economic freedom in our life time’. It states that 20 years of political freedom have ‘not borne much significance to the people of South Africa’ as ‘the political power that was transferred to the black majority through inclusive elections in 1994 was never transformed into economic freedom as the majority of Africans remain on the margins of society as unemployed, underemployed or discriminated-against in their employment, while those who held economic, social and political power since the colonial period continue to enjoy economic, social, and professional privileges’.

It is true that South Africa’s level of economic inequality remains among the highest in the world and wealth correlates uncomfortably with race, with whites controlling a hugely disproportionate share of assets and income. Although there are some strong social movements in South Africa, such as the Social Justice Coalition, which operates nationally, and Abahlali baseMjondolo, which is Durban based, the poor and marginalised have few productive outlets for their anger and frustration. This has resulted in disenchanted communities starting take the law into their own hands and ‘service delivery protests’ becoming part of daily life in the country – which has been dubbed ‘protest capital of the world’.

The EFF, with its call to nationalise mines and redistribute land without compensation, could be defined as socialist or leftist, but according to some it is nothing more than a noisy and militant by-product of the ANC. In the South African context of general discontent, cohorts of unemployed youth and disgruntled workers seem an easy target for savy ‘leaders’ such as Malema though. Could his EFF be the force for radical change many South Africans have been waiting for or is the movement just exploiting  disenchantment – dangerously so?

Disintegration  

According to Ashley Fataar, the launch of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has caused a lot of excitement and derisive tension. However, in his opinion, what has been written on the EFF so far misses the point. ‘The point’, according to him, is that the EFF is a nationalist movement – yet, all nationalist movements in post-colonial Africa have failed to be a real force for change.

Referring to Frantz Fanon’s 1961 ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ he alerts the audience of the ‘pitfalls’ of national consciousness and the ‘empty shell’ of nationalism. Using the examples of the ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe, FRELIMO in Mozambique and the ANC in South Africa, Fataar illustrates that, for black capitalists, nationalisation does not mean placing the economy at the service of the nation but into their own hands. ‘In all these countries, the promise of a better life has been turned onto its head and the radical nationalists have turned against the masses’, he states.

For Fataar, the colonialists and the nationalists that came after them have one thing in common: they both embrace capitalism. He warns that EFF-led nationalisation in South Africa will not take into account worker control but rather be a form of state capitalism. Fataar, who does not believe in getting into parliament by winning elections anyway, mumbles something about ‘self-emancipation of the masses’ but as his time is up, the floor is given to Andrew Nash.

Andrew Nash jumps out of his chair and delivers his speech standing and smiling incessantly, beaming with energy. According to him, the EFF was launched in a context of disintegration – disintegration of the ANC and of black capitalism. He points out there were contradictions for the ANC right from the beginning, as from 1994 onwards they have been on a mission to please both international investors and the poor people at home. However, with the plundering of public resources under Zuma (or ‘Zupta’) there is an additional disintegration: the disintegration of the understanding of what South Africa could be.

Nash points out that Malema has never known politics other than the politics of the ANC. ‘If you read his biography “An Inconvenient Youth” by Fiona Ford you actually realise that he found himself at exactly those places where this disintegration was at work on numerous times in his life’. Andrew Nash believes the EFF will most certainly hasten the process of disintegration in South Africa, although, even without the EFF the fight for tenders will continue and the political assassinations in Mpumalanga and Limpopo will not cease to exist. He does believe Malema and the EFF have something to offer to South Africa, namely:

1) They are telling the truth about what is going on in South Africa – a truth that is being concealed in the (mainstream) media and which is thus invisible for the masses. Some examples of these truths Nash refers to are, for example the fact that ‘the wealth in South Africa still belongs to whites’, ‘the ANC is enriching itself’ and that ‘Marikana and the role of police (state) violence where not an accident but the way in which the elite will react to any form of organised dissent. This is a sign of what will continue.’

2) They bring people together that may otherwise never have met. They are organising communities in the local context. Whereas the ANC says: ‘You can’t change a country overnight’, most of the people on the ground have not seen a night that was ever this long before. People are willing to come out for EFF and organise.

Nash is not overly jubilant though. The EFF project raises questions for him too, of which he highlights two:

1) The EFF seems to be as much of an authoritarian project as the ANC. Will people who have lost faith in the ANC really find something new in the top-down leadership style of Julius Malema? Liberation is about the masses taking control over their own future, not about shouting slogans back to the leader.

2) The EFF does not have a clear vision for a new society. On the 28 October 2011 Malema said ‘we want everything that whites want’. Is he talking about personal wealth? This is not going to be possible for everyone. Nash doesn’t see the EFF pushing an agenda that overrides the American view of ‘economic freedom’.

Nash concludes his speech by saying he feels the EFF is ‘the best option – even if they betray the people they claim to represent’. ‘Go and vote for EFF’, he challenges the audience, ‘I may well do so myself’. ‘But be under no illusions about what you will be getting’, he warns.

‘I did not start wearing this beret just because I got excited. I thought about this.’

As the floor is opened up for questions and debate, a somewhat electrifying energy gets hold of the audience – consisting of about thirty people, mainly black men. One of the members of the audience proudly wears the typical red EFF beret. One other person in the audience also (openly) supports the EFF. They are both young and male. As there was no EFF spokesperson on the panel, both of them take turns to respond to questions from the audience, in a respectful and engaging way – although the person without the beret gets lost in political rhetoric a little too often, reciting – for no apparent reason – from Muammar Ghadaffi’s ‘Green Book’.

Questions from the audience revolve around what kind of social class Malema represents, whether the EFF is racist and whether he is a redeemed man or will embezzle funds again in the future. Some call him a fascist and a charlatan.

Apart from discussing Malema’s persona, the audience also debates the EFF’s policies. Nash apologises (without being prompted to do so) for using one of Malema’s rather old quotes from 2011. I’m sure he finds the reaction he gets is a tad surprising: ‘I’m not just wearing this beret because I got excited, I’ve thought about this’, the young EFF supporter states. ‘People went to exile and died for things we are still struggling for. We suffered long enough in backyard dwellings and as domestic workers. If the white man can send his children to Rondebosh High School, we want the same’.

‘Isn’t that the wrong way? Why do you want to send your children to private schools?’, asks Nash in reply. ‘Should the state not provide decent education? With private schools existing next to public schools there will always be class division – the majority will pay for this with their sweat and blood. Is there not another form of economic freedom than the purely materialistic one?’ he asks.

No one replies.

‘We as the Left have dismally failed’ 

At the end of the evening, the answer to the question as to whether the EFF is a force for radical change remains hanging in the air. What the majority seems to agree on is that the Left has been swamped by the EFF. ‘We are becoming even less of a force for change. The EFF has planted a seed, which is something we as Left have dismally failed to do’, one of the members of the audience sums it up.

While the EFF raises fundamental questions around issues like land, state repression and white wealth – issues that South Africa can no longer sweep under the carpet, it remains to be seen whether the movement will betray or deliver to the people that are offering their support in good faith and see the party as a last resort to address decades of marginalisation and exclusion.

Although Fiona Ford believes Malema is more interested in power than in redressing historical inequities, professor Pitthouse rightfully points out that ‘it’s not impossible that the EFF could be changed in significant ways by the popular struggles it is seeking to capture, by the alliances it makes, internal contestation, changes in our broader political landscape or the nature of electoral politics’.

The Left in South Africa can continue to stigmatize and ridicule the EFF movement. It may be wiser – for themselves and for the country – to attempt to influence the EFF’s political line though and to work together for a better – and more egalitarian – future. Before it may be too late for constructive dialogue. The masses of South Africa deserve it.