South Africa

South Africa

Painting South Africa Red: Notes from the EFF’s national assembly

Painting South Africa Red: Notes from the EFF’s national assembly

Over the course of 2014, the EFF has become, in their own words, 'a vanguard movement' — largely because they’re the only game in town when it comes to an organised, boisterous left. But how can the party grow in the next four years to challenge the ANC in 2019, painting the entire country Red? Meet one of the Fighters who plans on taking the party from Marxist sloganeering to the State Presidency. By RICHARD POPLAK.

At first there isn’t much that sets Mlungisi Rapolile apart from the mass of Fighters milling around the two ice-cream vendors outside Free State University’s Callie Human auditorium. He wears standard issue red beret, standard issue overalls and a standard issue red backpack. The first clue that he’s perhaps something more lurks in the backpack, which is stuffed to the point of overflowing, and the second clue in the slight crinkling around the corners of his eyes. They suggest that a) Rapolile is either a scholar or a drug dealer, and b) he’s about fifteen years older than the average Fighter gathered here to participate in the EFF’s first National People’s Assembly. Two of those clues, it turns out, prove to be largely on the money.

Rapolile was born into the struggle 43 years ago, conscientized by his parents, spat out into the wilds of exile. He did his time in camps and cells in Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda, Botswana and Swaziland, a young member of MK, a stalwart Comrade. During the first transition, he was rolled into the South African National Defense Force. He earned an education degree, started training the police how to police, and found his métier teaching political education to the ANC’s Gauteng branch. Over the course of his tenure in the party, he moved through its capillaries like a molecule of oxygen, mapping the pathways, gaining the sort of political-institutional experience that is worth much more than money. He worked with the unions, he worked with the ANCYL, he worked with the Ekurhuleni mayor’s office. There he saw the sort of grim corruption—“right before my eyes!”—that has become the ANC’s hallmark. He was hearing from the EFF. He spoke with his wife, also a long time Comrade, and decided that it was time to say goodbye.

But one doesn’t just walk away from a million rand a year gig with the ruling party, just as one does not saunter out of mob. Rapolile claims that he’s suffered all sorts of harassment since rescinding his party membership and quitting his job in March—precisely the sort of harassment that Malema claims EFF Fighters have to deal with every day. He says that members of the National Intelligence Agency have shown up at his kids’ school. His home has been ransacked. He is being surveilled. “I’m not a nobody,” he says. “I’m trained in these things. They’ve made me a focus, because I deal in practical things.”

And it is precisely those practical things that make someone like Rapolile so valuable to the EFF at this stage of its development. The party is faced with numerous challenges in its attempts to grow, but it’s possible to identify two main ones: building and maintaining disciplined structures in every ward in the country; while making sure the EFF “brand” is communicated clearly throughout those structures. Like any party in a rental system like our own, the EFF is in a constant campaign mode. Just as the ANC once owned Rapolile—and lost him as it moved further and further away from the Freedom Charter—the EFF must somehow lash itself to its members’ consciousness. They plan to capture and keep those members with overflowing, steaming helpings of Ideology.

Which is where Rapolile comes in. He’s the party’s full-time Political Education Research Officer, and he has two jobs. He must teach young Fighters the ideological underpinning of their movement: a bit of Marx, a bit of Lenin, a touch of Fanon, some apartheid history, a soupcon of leftist economic theory. He must also communicate the party’s founding manifesto and its seven “non-negoitiable cardinal pillars” throughout the literature the party is handing out at the assembly.

Spend some time at Free State University this weekend, and you learn that this is a signature moment in the EFF’s history—all of the delegates here will go out, back into the four corners of this vast and shapeless country, fully trained in how to disseminate the party line. His main contribution was the Branch Induction Manual, which walks delegates through the ins and outs of developing local branches. The method of creating these manuals is lifted almost entirely from the leftist playbook.

Myself, I’m a bureaucrat, I turn the ideas into words. I am influenced by the Soviets, by the Cubans, by the Chinese,” he tells me. He reports directly to Floyd Shivambu, the party’s Deputy President, and they helped develop committees in order to work out how the branches would be structured. “We took key issues of concern,” Rapolile explains, “and turned them into discussion documents. Because we’re a new organisation, we want it to be simple.” And the resulting manual is simple, easily digestible, if not exactly Nabakovian. “A lot of this is educating people about the ideology. Here, the intention is to bring the manifesto to life.”

This founding document, crafted by the EFF’s big guns, is the bat with which an endless game of ideological whack-a-mole is played. Because there was no real party to speak of when the manifesto was created, any Fighter is essentially joining a party that was defined and shaped not by the sort of democratic processes tub-thumped by those that wrote it, but by decree. Nonetheless, Rapolile insist that there is the perfect mixture of top-down, bottom-up discourse happening in the committees. But one thing is clear: new Fighters may be able to shape a few things here or there, but the EFF does not negotiate. It’s post-modern rapid-fire flexibility turns out to be its inflexibility.

rapulilo 2

Photo: Rapolile, who previously worked with the ANC and trade union movement, said EFF members, many of whom are still youth, must always be guided by the party line. (Greg Nicolson)

About twenty minutes after our discussion by the ice-cream vendors, Rapolile is called into the hall. It’s bible-thumping time, the bible being the manifesto. In front of about a thousand weary delegates and a few members of the Central Command Team (CCT), he fulminates away. Rapolile can talk; pith is not his strong suit. He reads from a laptop adorned with a “Zuma Pay Back The Money” sticker, and waves his arms like an itinerant preacher. “This battle started a long time ago, when settlers took back the land,” he yells. “That is our spear. Our approach will be researched, it’s not based on emotions.”

Next year, Rapolile will develop “sophisticated education all the way from the branch level up to the CCT.” His office will be beefed up, and he’ll once again train the trainers and “cascade them down.” The party is fixated on political education, and they are working very hard to turn South Africa’s youth sharply leftward. And it isn’t too difficult, considering the ideological vacuum that Zuma’s ANC has imposed on the country. If the ruling party isn’t willing to explain it’s political decisions, then they can’t cry foul when someone explains it for them.

So there Rapolile stands, yelling ancient ideas at very young South Africans. It’s astonishing how new the EFF has made all the hoary old –isms seem, or perhaps it isn’t astonishing at all. To the people in the audience, it’s all new, all revelatory. Rapolile is explaining their reality. He then turns it into workbooks, into manuals, and most importantly, into votes. He’s painting the country red, one mind at a time. DM

Photo: Rapolile, who works under EFF Deputy President Floyd Shivambu, addressed EFF delegates at the University of Free State, Bloemfontein where the party is holding its first conference. (Greg Nicolson)

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