The advent of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has gained much attention as the first clear reconfiguration of youth politics in post-apartheid South Africa. Much has been discussed about the policies proposed by “Commander-in-Chief” Julius Malema and his commissars, especially those regarding nationalisation and the appropriation of land. While there has been some discussion about the significance of the red beret, there has been little discussion about the significance of the military nature of the language used by the EFF. This language is important in the South African context because it demonstrates the extent to which “peace” in South Africa is evidently militarised peace.
This language arises despite efforts at the national leadership level to move the country away from the battle-centric conceptions of the fight for liberation that influenced, for example, the ANC’s call for a “people’s war” during apartheid. Post-apartheid South Africa however has been symbolised by a different kind of “revolutionary”, one who marches into the site of “combat” in shiny designer suits — lest we forget, for instance, former president Thabo Mbeki being labelled as the “Gucci revolutionary” of the African Renaissance. This moment in which Malema and company invite South Africans to throw off the designer garments (albeit momentarily) for the “real” uniform of the guerrilla, must therefore be taken seriously.
There has been considerable symbolic recognition of the importance of the armed struggle in the fight against apartheid. At times this has eclipsed the recognition given to the non-militarised forms of struggle, such as the trade union movement, the Black Consciousness Movement or the United Democratic Front, all of which are widely understood to have been more effective modes of struggle. However South Africa’s transition has been less clear in the support given to ordinary military veterans. The transition is cryptically caught between being defined as a peaceful “miracle”, while simultaneously showing a distressing failure to account for the thousands of military veterans who feel they are the excess of democracy. A few years ago Susan Cook made the case that the profile of the South African military veteran presents us with two extremes, and these are “a handful of heroes and patriots like Chris Hani, and the rest — the walking wounded — depressed and violent men [and women] unable to overcome the traumas of combat and the institutions of war”.
In the aftermath of apartheid it appears the beret has been exchanged for the designer suit. In our economic climate this has meant that only a few men and women like the Motsepe’s, Ramphele’s and Ramaphosa’s, are eligible to enter the battlefront against “imperial forces”.
In this context therefore berets are certainly a far cheaper way for ordinary people to join in the battle for economic liberation. The choice of the EFF to replace the suit not with a T-shirt but with a beret tells us the new party’s views of revolution remain restricted in a way that continues to privilege military power as signalling “real” transformative power. The beret places the soldier at the top of the hierarchy in how we think of revolution instead of offering new and interesting ways in which we can think about revolution without emphasising military cultures that we now know to be problematic. We know, for instance, that military language is not comfortable with complexity but relies on binaries of “friend or enemy”.
This language is useful to the extent to which it makes it easier to draw the lines of combat, in this case the white-owned mines, the farms and the banks being the site of combat. The problem with this approach is that due to the penetration of these same places by several Gucci-wearing black “revolutionaries” since 1994, the EFF guerrilla will now have to redefine the “real” enemy and whether ultimately the designer-wearing revolutionary is in “bed” with the larger revolution. It is these complexities that make military language a particularly blunt instrument in accounting for these new ambivalent “threats”.
Stephen Ellis’s book published last year, External Mission: The ANC in Exile 1960-1990, paints a particularly disturbing and piercing picture of the ANC, but it is one example that shows how military language can be used to undermine a commitment to democratic values in situations where cadres are easily eliminated in the battle as “collateral damage”.
This “friend versus enemy” language of the military is severely stretched in this context. The EFF guerrilla entering combat against “enemy agents” known as “white monopoly capital”, located not only in the mines, farms and banks, but all over the world must also at the same time reconcile with some blacks whose livelihoods are intimately attached to the workings of white monopoly capital. Unlike the 1980s when the black majority was incited into making the state ungovernable, it would be pretentious to assume that such language captures the intricacies of this political moment even though black people still for the most part remain outside of the mainstream economy. This particular context has far more layers to it which demands a nuanced understanding that does not rely too heavily on binaries. At the outset it matters that the government is no longer a “hippo”-driving Boer, but is now largely run by blacks.
The manifesto of the EFF concludes awkwardly by making a special appeal to the security forces that they are not the enemy. This is because the rebirth of the warrior citizen sets up a scenario where the self-appointed commanders in chief have placed themselves in a situation where they have to re-assure the current security forces that the EFF guerrilla is not seeking to replace the existing soldier. This is one of the examples that speak to the complicated nature of the military language used by the EFF and the operational “battleground” they find themselves in.
The return to the warrior citizen is also interesting and concerning because feminists have long argued that the military has a “profound dependency on maleness”. When at this time the men of EFF call us to battle, we must wonder what this implies for the relationships between men and women.
The party’s “gender and sexuality question” says nothing about the need to transform violent masculinities in South Africa. It rather makes the case that economic liberation will deliver both genders, especially women, from present white and black patriarchal tyranny. This framing of gender, which is actually just reduced to the “empowerment” of women while saying very little about the need to seriously reconfigure current masculinities, assumes that economic liberation is the cure for patriarchy. The EFF Women’s Command has been the given the daunting and impossible task of organising and mobilising “women with men if needs be, into ending patriarchy by putting the patriarchal, white-supremacist, capitalist oppression of women to an end”.
Past experiences tell us that gender relations ought to be reconfigured during conflict, not in the aftermath. This means that it is not the aftermath that is important for gender transformation but how the battle is fought. A serious commitment to ending patriarchy will have to mean that both the men and women in the EFF use the “revolution” to re-imagine their femininities and masculinities in a way that allows them to use the battle-site as a place where they already practice gender equality for the post-“war” society. Given the record of the key figures in the new party on gender matters, and the degree to which its militaristic posture is a masculinist posture, this seems highly unlikely.
However it is certainly a real symbolic power in the fact that young people in South Africa are to be called to the “battlefront” in a country where they are often silenced for not having struggle history. The return of the warrior citizen perhaps opens up a space for the young to get their “badge of honour”.
Even so, there is a real need to examine whether the language of the warrior is sufficiently adequate to and comfortable with the complexity of our society for it to offer both urgency and democratic agency, equally available to women and men, in our struggles. We must think seriously about the consequences of reclaiming the “warrior citizen” — because of what it will mean to think ourselves out of soldier mentality both in the midst of the war that has been declared and in its aftermath.