Press "Enter" to skip to content

Nouveau red: The cult of representation

The truly fascinating and engaging aspect of being part of a democracy, is the ability to tease, convert or overhaul the status quo for the sake of requisite representation if the electorate deems it necessary. Yes, even when the electorate is said to be largely on zombie mode. The results of India’s election and the BJP win show ample evidence of this. One would have hoped that the Indian electorate had enough courage in its Aam Aadhmi, or common individual, so that the vote against historical Congress would reflect at least that confidence, rather than its Hindu right-wing option, alleged for example to be responsible for the Gujerat riots.

One wonders what will be the lot of women and minorities in Modi’s government. What is certain is that the big money behind the BJP is sure to benefit. But there are lessons for South Africa and the as yet ruling ANC that cannot be so easily ignored: the sentiment of history will not allow for corruption and inefficient service delivery to go on forever.

At the parliamentary inauguration of MPs in Cape Town on May 21, the EFF arrived proudly dressed in their adopted uniform of red work-overalls and aprons. While twitter streams reflect a mixed outpouring of jest, awe and support by mostly their own members, there is undoubtedly a powerful statement being made.

EFF has rightly represented a workforce that constitutes a large majority of men and women who are exploited by the neo-liberal economic system and as the country struggles to keep up with the demands of a global economic crisis, many have yet to reap some reward of economic growth promises made thus far. The nouveau reds are saying multiple things, while engaging proudly with the masses. When you look at parliamentary meetings, you will see yourself there, standing side by side with the speakers for big business, the state and its cronies. The common man and woman is represented, been given a voice. This is democracy.

Somewhat reminiscent of the Black Panther Party in the US of the 60s and 70s, EFF has the ability to inform the way forward. It might also take lessons on sustaining its goals, not giving way to factions and internal discord. For now the road ahead seems bright.

Speaking at the EFF press conference the morning after election day, Malema spoke eloquently about what he envisaged on the road ahead and he made no bones about the fact that the ANC had messed up. As part of parliamentary reforms, Malema has envisaged seven pillars, which include expropriation of land without compensation and the nationalisation of mines. A fund has been set up to assist striking Amcu members. The Gift of the Givers has also provided food aid to families of striking mine workers.

It remains to be seen whether EFF follows through on its promises to the people, but as a party, it’s started out on an interesting footing, taking much of the struggles of the working poor into consideration. While its leader continues to have legal battles ahead, this is also a country that struggles with mistrust of an increasingly irresponsible ruling party. Malema and his EFF may provide the respite needed in these challenging times where most feel silenced in their dissent, unable to air grievances. Regardless of whether South Africans are giving him the thumbs up or not, we will be watching in fascination as this cult of representation takes hold.

“Theatre remains any society’s sharpest way to hold a live debate with itself,” writes Peter Hall in his book The Necessary Theatre. “If it doesn’t challenge, provoke or illuminate, it is not fulfilling its function.”

But there’s also another thing at play in this striking attempt at political theatre: there will be an inevitable, if hesitant shift in consciousness for many of the MPs from other parties who may be able to identify with seeing the “ordinary person” effectively placed alongside their (pretentious) power-suited selves.

Within these representations, they will be in full view of the life struggle history of older siblings, parents, uncles and perhaps even themselves. Let it not be forgotten that South Africa is built and pampered on the sweat of an underpaid working class, mine workers, domestic labour. Parliament will be regularly reminded of what seems to have been forgotten. The red overalls ask more questions of us, and challenge the foregone conclusion that men-in-suits might dictate how society is informed and how it operates.