The Economic Freedom Fighters have mastered the art of politics as spectacle. With each act of zealous defiance, with each call to strident protest, the EFF conducts a grand performance. Whether demanding that former apartheid president FW de Klerk leave the State of the Nation Address or railing against a racist advertisment by Clicks, the EFF frames these campaigns as a confrontation with injustice.
To some their acts of rebellion signify the party’s commitment to the cause of millions of black people destitute and disregarded by our post-apartheid order. To others, the EFF heralds the coming of an African fascism.
Beyond these controversial performances, how can the party of Julius Malema be understood? Too often mainstream commentators are mesmerised by these performances, their commentary being reactive rather than analytical.
A useful way to unearth the substance of what the EFF has to offer is to assess the party on its own terms. Who do the Economic Freedom Fighters claim to be? Reading their 2019 election manifesto and viewing their online lecture series, one sees a party that has fused the political theory of Marxist Leninism with the socio-political thinking of Frantz Fanon. Essentially they claim to be Pan-African socialists.
Is there a significant gap between what the party claims to stand for and the politics it actually enacts in our political landscape? For example, the ANC has always regarded itself as a party that must advance the interests of the working class. And yet in August of 2012, when miners at Marikana were abandoned by their unions and confronted corporate power demanding better wages, the ANC used the power of the state to massacre members of their own supposed constituency. A contradiction was brutally revealed on that day, it is the exposure of such contradictions that unravel the true nature of our ruling party.
Too often the South African media, its liberal commentators in particular, display a naked prejudice towards the EFF. Poorly substantiated attempts to brand the party as fascist are in vogue. Who can forget the time when journalists foraged through the trash of EFF members in Camps Bay, preserving condoms and expensive liquor bottles as evidence of their hypocrisy? These are the gut reactions of those unable to process the return and evolution of a black nationalism, embodied by the EFF.
An uncritical, ideological attachment to liberal democracy results in commentators viewing radical politics (even if it’s just posturing) as naive, destructive and insincere. This overlooks how the floundering and failure of political institutions fosters an environment for radical, disruptive and sometimes shocking action.
Credit must be given where credit is due
The EFF’s #PayBackTheMoney campaign secured a Constitutional Court case resulting in a judgment which found former President Jacob Zuma guilty of violating the constitution. Currently the party is the leading payroll donor to the Solidarity Fund. Greatly admirable is the party’s consistent stance against afrophobia through its attempts to raise a Pan-African perspective within a country that often views itself as separate and superior to its neighbours across the continent. What’s been most exciting to witness is how the party has reinvigorated a political consciousness among some young South Africans. Politics is no longer the game of dull, tired old elites. Through the EFF, many of the youth have realised that they have the right and agency to influence our political world.
Through closer inspection of the party’s history, however, it becomes clear that the socialism of the EFF is mostly artificial. The party suffers from an excess of ideological ambiguity and confusion. The absence of ideological clarity results in a party unable to achieve its stated objectives. But as political commentator Dr Sithembile Mbete has argued, populism is better defined as a style of politics to amass power, rather than a coherent ideology.
The EFF is riddled with tense contradictions which undermine its programme. They can be classified as electoral populists and their populism is largely corrosive — it exploits the rage of a conquered and betrayed people, substituting political theatre in the place of an actual radical agenda and ultimately dims our political consciousness, prodding us to often engage in distracting wars of identity over tangible economic struggle.
Racism as class domination
As masters of populist spectacle, the EFF frames the struggle for economic freedom as one unfolding between a corrupt elite and the downtrodden, marginalised masses. By donning working class attire in parliament, consistently focusing on issues such as unemployment, through their fierce critiques of a decaying ANC and “white monopoly capital”, the EFF presents itself as a party of the masses that will be a vehicle towards a revolution derailed in 1994.
This begs us to ask, who are the masses and who are the elites? The EFF seems to have forgotten that under capitalism, the great hierarchy is between the working class and the ruling class of owners. Yet in the party’s policy statements, speeches and interviews, the great divide is one that is racial. For the EFF, the issue is white ownership on the back of black destitution — 26 years later, settlers remain prosperous and the wretched of the earth are still exactly that. The central injustice which gives fire to the EFF’s programme is racial inequality and not class domination.
Why is this a problem for the EFF’s proclaimed commitment to socialism? Anyone who denies the existence of grand racial inequality in South Africa is neck-deep in delusions. Hyper-focus on the race of the haves and the have nots, however, limits our insight into the true nature of oppression. Let’s briefly look at the question of land redistribution as an example.
Would it be more fair or just if land was in the hands of a black minority? No. The injustice isn’t that white people own most of the land. The injustice is that the earth’s resources, which we all depend on to survive and potentially flourish, are privately owned by a minority, essentially held ransom, not for the benefit of all society but for the enrichment of a few. What needs our focus is the relationship of South Africans to land and to all resources, and the means to produce those resources into wealth. And whether such a relationship is alienating or democratic. Land given back to black people in and of itself is not the key to our liberation. And this isn’t to say race is irrelevant.
“What persuades men and women to mistake each other from time to time for gods or vermin is ideology.” — Terry Eagleton
Race is a myth that matters. We live the social reality of race and experience its material effects on our lives every day. Still, we must not forget that race is an illusion, specifically, it is an ideological construct. Race as a concept is as scientifically sound and coherent as the flat-earth conspiracy. White and black people didn’t always exist, they had to adopt these identities for particular historical and material reasons. The power of race as an ideology and its functions are far reaching.
Racism is not the root of black oppression, rather it is the language through which that oppression is understood, and the realm in which it is most viscerally experienced. This becomes clear when we delve into the function of ideology. Ideologies exist to justify that which is reprehensible, to rationalise that which is illogical and to legitimate that which is morally disgusting.
Base of racial domination is economic power
To simplify history, the demands of colonial powers and capital in South Africa necessitated access to resources and cheap labour to produce said resources into wealth. These imperatives meant wars had to be waged, land had to be stolen and pre-colonial societies needed to be dismantled, in order for the native to become a worker in a market economy, forced to trade their energy, time and skills for a precarious survival through a wage.
Colonial conquerors, capitalists and the state established a system of producing wealth — a racial capitalism — that subjugated indigenous people, ripping them away from their previous means of survival and cementing white ownership of the economy. Importantly a relationship was created, extensively expanded upon during apartheid, but it wasn’t solely a relationship of racial supremacy, it was a relationship of class domination, vindicated through the myth of white supremacy.
Those branded black had to be branded black in order to justify their servitude as the under class. The ideology of white supremacy allowed one to be expandable and objectified; a human reduced to an instrument that can be used how its master sees fit. Historically, the state, education systems, media and the church continually reaffirmed racism as necessary, rational, pragmatic and even sanctioned by God. Thus ideology pierces into the subconscious. Our patterns of thinking and routines of social behaviour are then informed by the illusion of race.
The enduring brilliance of thinkers such as Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon was in their ability to see through the blinding mist of white supremacy, knowing it to be an ideology of domination and leave us the analytical tools to understand its effects on our society and our interior being. Both thinkers recognised the base of racial domination was economic power. More importantly, thinkers within this tradition recognised that without redistribution of wealth and the creation of democratic relationships both politically and economically, domination would persist but it would gradually become conducted by black elites.
Racism retains its vitality today because capitalism, and the relations of domination and division it creates, remain intact. Black people still exist mostly in positions of servitude, as maids, security guards, waiters, gardeners, janitors — maintaining the quality of suburban life but rarely present to enjoy its luxuries and share in the lives of white people as socioeconomic equals. And so black people can continue to be perceived as inferior or incapable and inhuman. It is not a coincidence that global narratives about the poor as lazy, incompetent, undeserving of certain rights and privileges, are at times identical to myths about black inferiority.
What has changed in the past 26 years is the blooming of a small black elite. This disturbs the EFF’s exultation of race as the central contradiction in South Africa. This new elite consists mostly of high-level managers, career politicians, business folk and successful tenderpreneurs. A black chief executive and a black grocery packer may share an identity, with similar cultural experiences and even similar experiences of racial discrimination. The black executive, however, by belonging to the class which commands and owns the economy, is actively invested in a political order which seeks to restrict a black grocery packer to a position of exploitative servitude. The interests of workers and the ruling class of owners, whether white or black, are in perpetual conflict under capitalism.
As our traditional leaders and career politicians have demonstrated, black hands can have the capacity to subjugate with as much brutal finesse as the white man. And they do so not as the puppets of white power or the representatives of white interests, but often in the pursuit of power in and of itself, for themselves.
A 2018 World Inequality Report found that “Rising black per capita incomes over the past three decades have narrowed the interracial income gap, although increasing inequality within the black and Asian/Indian population seems to have prevented any decline in total inequality”. Explained by Rekang Jankie: “In racialised language this means that the economic gap between Sipho and Vukosi contributes more to generalised inequality than the gap between Sipho and Johan”. With capitalism slowly absorbing more black people into the middle class, one can foresee a situation in which this class becomes invested in maintaining the current economic order, so long as they are able to benefit in the same manner as their white counterparts.
As inequality widens among black people, holding up race as the ultimate divider becomes misleading. It allows elites to co-opt the rhetoric of anti-racism, while acting in ways which actively harm most black people. The aspirations to see more black billionaires and business people or black captains of industry often find expression as the need to eradicate white supremacy within the economy. Changing the race of those who exploit and unfairly extract wealth, does not change the process of injustice itself.
Economic domination, existing as racial capitalism, is the greatest barrier to black liberation. But it isn’t the only barrier. Subjugation and persecution are also endured along planes of sexuality, gender and nationality in South Africa. The poverty and inequality and systemic unemployment racial capitalism necessitates are felt most severely by those who are subjected to the terror of patriarchy, homophobia or afrophobic nationalism. Evolving beyond capitalism seems to be a vital pre-condition for the eradication of sexism, the achievement of queer freedom and so on.
If capitalism is not dismantled and discarded or radically reformed, oppression will persist. Our economy needs to be democratised, and that is the mission of socialism but not the mission of the EFF.
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