Floyd Shivambu, deputy president of the Economic Freedom Fighters, is leading his outfit’s election campaign for Johannesburg. He and the party believe they will triple the support they garnered in 2014, and that the country’s most important metro will swing their way. If that scenario comes to pass – and don’t laugh, because you laughed the last time – it could mean that Shivambu will own Johannesburg. But who is The Floyd? What does he want for your country, your city, your community? RICHARD POPLAK went to Heidelberg for a rare chat with the man behind the Man behind the Man.
People are always shouting that they want to create a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reasons people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten.
Milan Kundera – The Unbearable Lightness of Being
In mid-winter, the rolling hills of Heidelberg are stained an old-underpants brown, a uniform dun that extends to the city, the outlying townships, the strip malls, the shacks, the future. In Ratanda, a model RDP-housing community (if there is such a thing), a breeze blows into every exposed crevice, coating the nostrils with grit that soon transforms into a post-nasal mudslide.
Perhaps contemplating the Saturn ring of smog tracking the horizon, Floyd Shivambu, deputy-president of the Economic Freedom Fighters, drifts through the streets of Ratanda at 9am on a Thursday morning. He’s wearing his standard campaign uniform: giant EFF-branded ski jacket, fraying EFF-branded bowling shirt, arterial blood-red EFF-branded beanie, denims, pair of newish Nikes. Shivambu has always been considered the taciturn EFF-branded tough guy – a brooding, burly leftist who can’t wait to go home to reread his Fidel Castro-annotated copy of Das Kapital.
As it happens, in a political space governed by bombastic A-type self-promoters, Shivambu is merely shy. When locals stop him in the street for a photo-op, he behaves like a bashful, basketball-player-sized pre-teen. But if the big man has a defining trait, it’s his weapons-grade smarts. His noggin is not raised above the parapet too often, mostly because he’s too busy building the parapet’s foundation. Conversely, if you happen not to be a fanboy of commie political theorising and the implementation thereof, Floyd is a fucking menace.
At this moment, the deputy president is engaged in the slow, methodical, grinding work of constituency building. Over the course of this municipal election campaign, which is vital to the growth of the organisation to which he has staked his political career, he has walked through hundreds of such dusty, windblown wards. Along with him are a gaggle of Fighters brandishing clipboards. They knock on the doors of the RDP houses and the makhukus in the backyards, offer the standard sales spiel, and ask for a phone number. The number is added to a database, which is in turn used to build a ward-specific WhatsApp group or SMS list.
The day before, the EFF Gauteng Provincial Task Force, under Floyd’s command, gathered 11,705 names, which were added to the millions of other names already collected and collated. This process demands tens of thousands of hours of free-ish labour, and cannot be done without a massive commitment of time from the party’s leadership.
But does it work?
“I have been operating so much in KwaZulu-Natal,” he tells me. “There are nearly 58 independent candidates operating there who used to be ANC, and the majority of them said they will give the PR vote to the EFF. I think that we will be the surprise of the elections. I think we will get close to 600,000 to a million votes there.”
Um, a million votes would almost match the total number of votes the EFF garnered nationwide during the 2014 national campaign.
“The most bare, bare minimum of votes for the EFF will be triple what we got in 2014. In Mpumalanga we’ll get some wards. In KZN we’ll get something. And in Limpopo, obviously, we’ll get something.”
Okay, so if coming from a base of nothing to over three-million punters in the course of three years is the plan, what’s going to happen in the next 11 days? Malema sent to the Moon in an EFF Humvee? The unveiling of a cold fusion generator? The revelation of three adult dragons at the final campaign rally?
Nothing so dramatic: the trick, apparently, is capitalising on the other guy’s mistakes. “If you know the ANC, it’s easy to beat them,” says Floyd. “The biggest mistake the ANC made was to announce political candidates. Even people in ANC T-shirts are refusing to vote for [fly-in councillors]. So we might even win these municipalities along the West Rand. Randfontein. Westonaria. The metros are going to be hung. Johannesburg is going to be hung. We’ve got very strong, extremely strong candidates in all the wards in Johannesburg. And in these metro discussions,” adds Floyd, pausing a little for the zinger, “it might end up that the EFF is in control of Johannesburg.”
In this case – and stranger things have happened, sniggering pundit – Floyd will, in all likelihood, be the man to run the joint.
How did it come to this?
If you’ve been following closely enough, you’ll know that the Economic Freedom Fighters are a group of revisionist political historians, a radical political movement. Speak candidly to a member of the Central Command Team in a dusty township street, or in a TV studio green room, or over whiskies in some neon-lit dump, and the discussion quickly veers towards the large red tomes at the back of the library. The Marxist inevitability of history, baby: the present is the past’s industrial waste product, a fetid compost that must enrich and grow the future. Steeped in any number of iterations of commie flimflam, a vital part of their programme, they’d argue, is workshopping the past in order to create a future. In truth, they’re workshopping the future in order to recreate the past. While the former impulse is utopian, the latter is fascistic, and the distinction is therefore not unimportant. Behind this project is the party’s Great Unknown, the Shadow, the man behind the man behind the man.
Meet Floyd Shivambu, the Fighter who may end up in possession of the richest city on the African continent.
* * *
We’ve paused, Floyd and me, to stand under the shade of a blue gum, across from an RDP house flying a tattered white flag indicating the presence of a sangoma.
He is now telling me stories about the old days.
A funny thing: put a black DA candidate in front of a group of white businessmen, and he or she will wow the crowd with a patented Inspirational Shack-to-Sandton origin story. Yet in South Africa, where the majority of the black population grows up poor, almost every politician who is not a member of the new ANC elite has a Shack-to-Sandton origin story, even if it has yet to be packaged for the business breakfast crowd. Example: Julius Malema could out-Mashaba Herman Mashaba. Floyd Shivambu could out-Mashaba them all.
It begins in 1983, in a Limpopo village called Mahonisi, Malamulele region, where Floyd was one of seven young Shivambus growing up on the bad side of the poverty line. Small house-type thing, no electricity, no piped water. His parents would travel to the Big Smoke to sell hand-sewn duvets or pillowcases on the streets, and were routinely chased away by the authorities. And so when Floyd berates Executive Mayor Parks Tau and his metro cops for harassing informal traders and confiscating their goods, as he did to great effect at the Daily Maverick Gathering, it’s personal.
“What Parks doesn’t understand is how close the line is between having something to eat and having nothing – nothing,” he says.
As a boy, Floyd dreamed of studying at the University of Witwatersrand. He wanted to be a doctor, an engineer, a professional. He duly applied to a technicon, but when he arrived at the main campus in 2001, he was jazzed up by all the excitement and the possibilities.
“I was hearing for the first time that there was a course called ‘sociology’ or ‘political studies’,” he tells me. This was a happy accident, because Floyd was active in political life throughout his boyhood. He was radicalised by local politicians, and served on the local high school’s Student Representative Council from his mid-teens. His father used to bring home books, one of them a dictionary of political concepts, another a copy of Lenin’s The State of Revolution, which was missing a bunch of pages. (Make of that what you will.)
Floyd memorised killer pick-up lines like: The state is the product of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. In the nothingness of Mahonisi village, at the very bottom of South Africa’s bottomless pyramid, Lenin’s sales pitch had a nice ring to it.
So, welcome to Wits, Young Leninist. On his very first day on campus, Floyd looked around at all the white-people nonsense and told a friend that he’d be president of the university’s SRC by the time he was done. “Ah, but this place is not for black people, you will not succeed,” replied the friend. True enough, but Floyd was just one of a number of new, highly effective black political activists who changed the nature of the SRC in the early zeroes, setting the scene for the movements currently recoding the country’s universities.
In his third year, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, Floyd Shivambu became president of the SRC.
Over the course of his time in Johannesburg, Floyd got to know the state-let in a way that most citizens never do. He stayed in a backyard shack in Diepkloof, he stayed in a student digs in Hillbrow, he lived in Braamfontein. Through it all, he was sucked inexorably towards the ANC. “There were no youth at all,” he tells me of local structure meetings. This fact alone quickly made of him a commodity. Before long, he was on the National Executive Committee of SASCO. From there, he was swept towards a young ANC Youth League activist named Julius Sello Malema.
“When I heard him speak,” says Floyd, “I thought, Ay!”
Malema may have felt the same way about his new BFF. Floyd was a one-man communist literature-generating machine. He had gained a reputation for presenting a cogent argument in relatively simple terms, employing English that an average cadre could understand – which basically made him unique in the party since the draftees of the Freedom Charter. Everyone in the broad church wanted a piece of him. But it was his destiny to be rolled into the ANC Youth League saga, and to be one of the principal leaders that veered the Mother Body towards the shoals of the appropriation without compensation palaver. Along with Malema, Shivambu helped destroy Mbeki and install Zuma as top dawg. Along with Malema, Shivambu helped yank the party’s discourse into ungovernable territory. Along with Malema, Shivambu was implicated in all the hoggish mega-consumption and whoremongering that defined the young Turks of that era.
“But Julius,” he chuckles, “if he had some businesses here and there, and if you had some business with him, you could still not tell him what to do.” A new calculus: corrupt, but uncorruptible.
Regardless, the kids were dumped into the void in 2011.
“It is cold outside the ANC,” promised Zuma. That dire injunction proved not to be true. Floyd claims that, while Malema had no real intention of starting a political party after the Grand Spanking, the moment arrived after the Marikana massacre. They were swept by history towards establishing a standalone political entity.
Who wrote the seven cardinal pillars – the “nationalise everything” precepts that define the EFF programme and so terrify the country’s neo-lib bien pensants?
Who is in charge of the history of the future of the past?
Who wrote into being the second fastest growing opposition party in the history of this democracy? (Sorry – first place still goes to Cope.)
The rest, as they say, is the epistemological framework for a new historicity.
So here we are – at the cusp of Floyd Shivambu’s Marxist-Leninist prose defining the way South Africa limps forward into something approximating a tomorrow. What’s so astonishing, of course, is the backstory, the context: a young man from rural Limpopo is on the cusp of shaping the City of Gold into something else, something that perhaps abnegates its long, unfortunate history.
Or, as the case may be, worsens it.
That said, Floyd isn’t joking when it comes to the ideological underpinning. “Noooo,” he drawls, when I ask him if the EFF’s fanciful manifesto can properly function in an actual version of the real world. “Think about how much money is wasted. Hundreds of millions on this project or that project. Everything we suggest can be paid for.” Communism, capitalism, all of the competing and conspiring adjuncts and animadversions – it’s all amounted to nothing. What the EFF will – will, insists Floyd – implement, is hardcore Marxist-Leninist socialism without the Soviet seepage.
What will Johannesburg look like under Floyd? Why not peruse the State of Revolution for a clue or two. And before you dismiss this as a non-possibility, consider how far the young men from Limpopo have travelled in the last several years.
They have come for the future in order to own the past in order to massively reconfigure the present. The interregnum, it is clear, belongs to them. DM
Photo: Floyd Shivambu, deputy president of the Economic Freedom Fighters (Greg Nicolson)
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