It was an ordinary February morning in 1989, for most in Berlin, but not for 21-year-old East German Chris Gueffroy. It would be his last day alive. The cold metal force from a border guard’s gun would rip through his jacket and shirt and pierce his heart — pouring deep red warm hope out onto the unrelenting concrete at the base of the towering 13 foot high wall separating East and West Germany. Geoffrey would die less than nine months before the man-made barrier would fall at the hands of its captives. Thousands of Germans would flood across the ruins from East to West once the wall evaporated at the birth of a re-unified Germany. Gueffroy’s hope cost him his life, theirs bought them a new one. To this day one can place your hand into the wounds on the walls of buildings east of where the wall stood. History takes long to forget and longer to forgive.
Closer to home, a 21-year-old from Gweru in Zimbabwe stares down the barrel of a gun as she hears the cold metal force of a police van crush her hopes and traffic her into a 30-day ordeal behind bars without trial or process, except for the pitch black ink left on her hands after home affairs took her fingerprints. Her crime: self-employed hairdressing in Polokwane without paperwork. After being deported she returned immediately to South Africa a mere day later, Human Rights Watch witnessing her story as she was arrested while crossing the Limpopo River. Fortunately for her the system was more permeable.
Two youths from vastly different worlds share similar stories. For the young African, a soldier or police officer could accept a bribe of as little as R500 to break ranks and turn a blind eye. Weak democracy, it would seem, is more humane than brutal dictatorship.
So what does this have to do with Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)? Surely failed post-WWII communism is a distant memory on the trash heap of history? Surely the devastating failure of Robert Mugabe’s experiment of “grabbing” justice was evident to all?
It’s in the interest of South Africans to look past the raucous and red berets and understand the true nature of the EFF.
The EFF is a political party founded on one idea — a state-led programme to take material possession of everything valuable and supposedly transfer the benefits to the economically and historically marginalised, basically to black South African youths. The party mobilises grassroots support using the most abundant of political capital — populist promises. It participates in the hard-earned democratic institutions of South Africa but with a very specific agenda — use them as a public platform to attack and discredit the African National Congress (ANC). Let’s not mince words, the EFF needs not be very creative, with the ANC-led administration dishing out bucket loads of poor governance, illegal gerrymandering and outright looting through a culture of collective trough guzzling.
The EFF simply tells the other side of the ANC’s “good story”. But, this democratic tactic is a shallow veneer. The brand and culture of the EFF is clear, it’s a military-style dictatorship complete with uniform, command and control and more worryingly, a claim to pseudo-legitimate violence. One does not have to be a trend analyst to track the trajectory of the EFF’s charismatic core, a finger-wagging, beret-donning, anger-monger gang, looking for a cause for which to “kill” — whether for Jacob Zuma or student rights. The victim needs a victim to become a victor, it’s a zero-sum game. But in the realm of national politics, where the levers of power, the military, police and economic policy are at stake, this is no game. It’s a matter of life, death and dehumanisation.
It’s necessary to identify the underlying drivers of our political revolution and choose to address them or ignore them at our peril.
To many an onlooker of the rapid rise of the EFF and Malema seems an unexplainable phenomenon. Yet a basic assessment of the central political message they put forward against the structural and systemic facts of an immature democratic South Africa, tell a simple story; commeth the last grains in the hour glass, commeth the man. Malema and his EFF are the last thing South Africa needs but exactly what the average South African wants. We need decades of education and a half century of productivity — they promise a decade of struggle for a lifetime of opulence. The average South African is poor — 56.6% says Statistics South Africa. If they have a job, a quarter of their siblings don’t and the younger they are the less likely they are to have one. While the vast majority have some form of schooling, their functional literacy and informal work experience translate into a skill set that is basically worthless in a 21st century global economy.
We are a nation of miners, farm and factory workers in an era in which South African mines are not competitive, large-scale commercial farming for export has cannibalised subsistence farming and factories thrive in other nations with lower average human-rights aspirations. The EFF are saying to a nation of unemployed young people, “your lives are decrepit because historic exploiters are still exploiting you … your dignity is undermined because they are powerful … you need not have patience or practical solutions … we will band together and take what is wrongfully theirs and make it rightfully yours — just vote to hand us power”. Therein lays the crux — an erroneous belief that political power will equate to economic power, and that collective action is a superior means for serving individual interests fairly.
Facing the EFF is a matter of political competition, but addressing the “cause” it represents is a matter of moral imperative for social justice.
As a South African who has enjoyed the post-apartheid spoils of freedom, the EFF represents a clear existential threat. I lived my early twenties under Nelson Mandela’s leadership and turned 30 under the less warm but more pragmatic Thabo Mbeki. These were good years for young educated white South Africans — we either found jobs or created them for ourselves. South Africa was a budding nation of untapped potential. Behind the veil of our shared middle-class ignorance though, a different story was playing out. The Malema generation were coming of age in a painful world of broken promises and shattered expectations. You could live under Tutu’s Rainbow but there was no pot of gold, they discovered. Being a South African, it turned out, was not an automatic guarantee of material affluence, or even of minimum wellbeing. It took an accelerated programme of social grants from roughly 4 million in 1994 to 17 million today to move the needle of poverty significantly. Broad-based black economic empowerment, the flagship of ANC redistributive policy, only put expensive lipstick on the capitalist pig that was left when the dust settled in the post-colonial mining outpost that is South Africa. To be well-off in South Africa, you need an education, a job, credit, or if not those, political patrons and shady ethics.
In our estimation South Africa has two election cycles in which to decide which walls we want to build — the walls around privilege or the broken down walls of human dignity. Beating Malema at the ballot box eight years from now is a mathematical improbability. Piercing holes in the deluded vision which he espouses by fixing education, the economy and the job market — our only alternative.
If we could travel across time and sit down with Geoffroy and ask, “Worauf hoffen Sie?” (What do you hope for?), I think he would simply say, “Ein besseres Leben” (A better life). I think if Gweru had a better life to offer than that which lies across the Limpopo River, less of Mugabe’s subjects would have become victims of South African xenophobia.
Let’s call a spade a spade, the EFF is marching towards a socialist dictatorship and the real losers in that story will be today’s teenagers who turn 21 under President Malema. The red berets promise power and pleasure but conceal a dehumanising value system of cold hard coercive force. Let’s not risk the lives of our nation’s young people by failing to improve the lives of their older brothers and sisters.
In conclusion, Malema, political power is not the only antecedent of economic power, or else the United States would be a poor nation of migrants detached from the Old World’s centre, Singapore would be a backwater weakling at the tip of an insignificant chain of islands, and Dubai would be a dustbowl with black liquid gold underneath, Britain would not have once ruled the world and the Chinese dragon would be fast asleep. Economic power comes from ingenuity, resources and their gainful use, creative genius, competitive advantage, efficiency and productivity and effort, or some combination of these. Political power can only preside over their employment or prey on their spoils, it cannot replace them. As for individual interests, political power (as does economic power) has a tendency to corrupt — as you yourself must have learned. Which will it be? Walls between us or ones within which we as a nation can make our home?