I live in Cape Town and not since the red berets started popping around the city have I seen the black man walk so tall in this terrifying tower of white privilege, which is this city. So sure of himself is the fighter that he does nothing but inspire confidence to those, like myself, who sit at the stands of the unfolding political drama that is evident as we trudge along, past the fifth democratic elections.
It isn’t only the rubbishing of pro-poor slogans by the fat cats in the ruling party that aroused my interest in the red machine. It is neither its own pro-poor slogans nor its ironic stand against corruption given that its commander in chief is embroiled in a corruption case as I write this that piqued my curiosity. Rather, it is making visible the most obvious, the woes of the most vulnerable in our free society, the poor black masses, the women, and the workers, and doing so in such an unapologetic fashion and alarming confidence. A confidence it took to the proverbial rooftops with a loudhailer in hand and cried: the land and all the minerals found buried beneath it, belong to the people. Black people.
While this can be termed politics, rhetoric, posturing, if you may, it made its way to the minds of more than 1.1 million South Africans at the polls. In close examination, past the noise of electioneering, I was drawn closer by something quite striking, quite unnerving, in the stride of a fighter: the chip on his shoulder, the nose titled at a contemptuous height, contempt that is directed at the state of affairs, at the perverse inequality, at an increasingly corrupt government, at an indifferent white monopoly capital, a monopoly that maintains at its centre the continued servitude of blacks to capitalist masters.
In its socialist militancy, images of all struggles of the people of the south emerge, from Mao Tse-Tung to Che Guevara, to our very own Chris Hani. An uncompromising militancy, hell-bent on fighting until the very end, until all the oppressed people are free. To digress for a minute, the EFF leader, Julius Malema, said something that stuck with me. He said, talking about himself and his accomplice Floyd Shivambu, that they had — and I paraphrase — liberated themselves from their masters in the ANC. How refreshing, I thought. Now it would seem, the next hurdle is to liberate the poor masses of this country just as Fidel Castro and his 26th of July Movement did for the people of Cuba under the oppressive, US backed, regime of Fulgencio Batista in the 1960s.
The timing of this message couldn’t have been more perfect as the inequality between the haves and have-nots has reached disgusting proportions — scandal after scandal has plagued the image and standing of the ruling party’s president, Jacob Zuma, and his administration: from Guptagate, Nkandla, to the massacre of 44 miners in Marikana by state police in defence of what seems, from where I stand, to be the interests of the capitalist masters at Lonmin.
In the red beret what becomes evidently clear is a restored sense of black pride. A pride once signified by the flailing fist of Nelson Mandela as he approached us after 27 years behind bars. Don’t get me wrong, Malema or rather the EFF, are nothing like Mandela. Theirs is not the fight for political freedom. That they have already, evident on the May ballot paper. While their struggle is articulated as that of economic freedom, when one begins to unpack it, you find that at the crux, their real fight is for dignity for the marginalised and the poor. Whether they mean this is subject to debate by capable political analysts, theorists and academics.
What I posit, however, is that with black suffering invisible to the eye of the master, the red beret, then, becomes a signifier of that suffering and anger. Some EFF leaders might wear it ironically, as they benefitted greatly from their time in the ANC, but for the rank and file it is much more than a branding exercise. It carries power, a power that is akin to a voice, one that has since replaced the vote as a dominant voice. It gives a face to the person behind the vote with frightening alarm for those who don’t wish to rock the boat, understandably.
The red beret, far from being a simple abstraction, alludes quite directly to the blood of those who continue to suffer under the current oligarchy, the people whose blood paints the Marikana “koppie”, the people whose blood runs along the gutters in Delft, Cape Town. The red beret in this instant isn’t only a signifier of that dead ideology, Marxism, whose death is best exemplified by the SACP. This redness is pointed towards the government and its friends, the capitalist class.
It also points to a disquieting fact — that in 2014, black blood hasn’t quite earned its rightful place under the skin, coursing silently in the veins. Black blood still stains the streets from Manenberg to Marikana. In the beret, the blood is literally pouring from the head down onto the body in the form of the EFF’s overall. What you have then, in the last analysis, is an inexorable bleeding, a bleeding made manifest in the attire of the fighter. Where “red” in the SACP has all but lost its meaning, thanks to characters like Blade Nzimande, the EFF pours meaning back into it by the acts of protest and agitation directed to the powers that be.
It is this image that struck me as I sat outside the Kimberly Hotel, drinking beer, thinking: wow, that stride, the stride of the fighter is a refreshing sight. But the proof of the EFF as a credible revolutionary movement lies in them mobilising the rural masses as every credible revolution has. And so far, the ANC has its roots deeply entrenched in that segment of the population.