South Africa is in a very different space to where it was a few months ago. Jacob Zuma’s departure has created some hope, especially within the ANC. No longer is the ruling party subjected to scandal after scandal, and no longer is it seen as the willing proxy of a corrupt family. Ramaphosa has also been strategic in the way he has enabled both the departure of Zuma and restructured the leadership. In the former, he carried all of the ANC structures with him until even those in the Zuma camp had begun to tire of the political antics of the former President. Only then did Ramaphosa tighten the noose and call for the motion of no confidence. Similarly, his restructuring of the cabinet did enough to send a signal that change is afoot, but had enough continuity to make all of the party factions feel that they had a future.
Of course there are many who are not happy at the speed and the extent of change. But they do not have to ponder the balance required between keeping the party coherent enough to win the 2019 election and portraying sufficient change to inspire a renewed confidence in the political party. Ramaphosa after all is playing the long game which allows him to deal with some of the more immediate challenges now, while deferring others for a later date. He is also in a position to manage some of his internal party opposition through political means – Cabinet appointments, redeployments – while leaving others to be dealt with through the long arm of the law.
The political renaissance in the ruling party has ruffled the leadership of the opposition and destabilized its alliances. The DA is scrambling to retain its coalitions in the big metropoles – Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Pretoria – and redefine its political message. Mmusi Maimane has to first figure out for himself why citizens should vote for him rather than Ramaphosa now that the electoral gift of a corrupt President is no longer available. He has to deal with the perennial problem of the DA; to figure out how to politically sell a message of economic growth with redistribution, and restructuring with inclusion. He also has to unravel from the alliance with the EFF without any of the stink sticking to the DA. After all, there is an element of political hypocrisy in the DA’s complaints about the EFF’s targeted alignment with the ANC, and its attempts to unseat Athol Trollip in Nelson Mandela. Too many political observers and even supporters cynically respond with what did you expect when you run with the hares and hunt with the hounds?
The EFF is similarly redefining its raison de tat. But addicted as it is to political spectacle, it has become even more prone to a political populism that incites racism, advocates extreme policies outside any evidential base, and creates a militaristic, violent, nihilistic macho-culture. Its strategies and tactics also skirt the very margins of the law – coming close to the advocating of hate speech, threatening individuals, thrashing businesses, violating the rule of law. It claims its rights, but never takes on its responsibilities. In this sense, the behaviour of the EFF is not very different to that of Julius Malema when he was still a foot soldier of Jacob Zuma at the rape trial where he continuously made misogynistic remarks against Khwezi. He may have apologised for that, but his behaviour has never changed. Intemperate was Julius Malema then, and intemperate remains the EFF now.
In this sense the EFF is very much the creation of Jacob Zuma, even though it may have fallen out with him and assisted in bringing him down. Think of its populist demagoguery and cast an eye back to Jacob Zuma in the Polokwane campaign or his attempts in the last two years, and those of his acolytes including the BFLF, to enable him to remain in power. Think of the corruption of leading lights of the EFF in Limpopo when they still controlled the province under the premiership of Cassel Mathale. Think of the administrative incompetence in the same Limpopo or in the other state institutions where EFF officials had previously reigned supreme. The EFF may be younger and perhaps even more politically adept, but its track record is as populist, corrupt and administratively incompetent as the Zuma camp ever was.
The EFF is also no different from the proto-fascist movements in Western Europe and the United States. Like them it rails against the establishment, eclectically adopts a variety of ideological instruments, and resorts to populist, racist, and cultural demagoguery. There is a belief in South Africa that the EFF’s left-leaning policies distinguish it from such proto-fascist movements. But those proto-fascist movements also advocate policies that provide support to and derive electoral nourishment from some of the poor. Think of the Five Star Movement in Italy and its policies for cushioning the poor, or the support that Donald Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminium receives from white workers in Middle America. Similar to the EFF these socio-economic support policies are coupled with racist or anti-immigrant (unlike the EFF) demagoguery directed at further fracturing society.
Too many within our society, including within the ANC and perhaps even Ramaphosa, believe that the EFF cannot be proto-fascist because it comprises young black people and their intemperateness is really a matter of age. But this too is a dangerous illusion. Proto-fascist movements can emerge across the racial divide. Think of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and the fact that many of the proto-fascist parties in Western Europe are also led by young leaders. Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement is only 31 years old and Alice Weidel from Germany’s AfD is 38 years old. Both derive their support from younger citizens. The Five Star movement’s largest base of support is among young people between 18 and 35 years of age, making it the largest beneficiary in Italy’s recent election. Ultimately it is not one’s age that defines the progressiveness of one’s politics, but one’s ideas and behaviour. It is a lesson South Africans urgently need to learn.
But it is a lesson the ANC needs to learn urgently as well. Ramaphosa’s ANC has until now used a mix of appeasement and distance to contain the EFF. Appeasement has involved mollycoddling the EFF by working with it in parliament around legislation associated with land expropriation much to the delight of the Zuma-aligned advocates of Radical Economic Transformation (RET), engaging it on winning over the Nelson Mandela metropole, praising its role as Mcebisi Jonas recently did in airing tough issues, and most importantly, by inviting it back into the ANC because as Ramaphosa phrases it, ‘Julius Malema’… ‘is still an ANC member deep in his heart’. But there is another side to the strategy which is to provide the EFF with sufficient rope so that it politically strangles itself. The ANC therefore remains silent when Julius Malema embarks on his racist tirades, or it stands aside when the EFF trashes H&M stores or forcibly removes meat products from supermarkets, or has a physical stand-off with right-wing racists in front of young school kids at the Höerskool Overvaal. It is hoped by elements in the ANC that the EFF overplays its hand in these cases and repels the vast majority of South Africans.
The problem with this strategy, however, is the fact that its two elements come into contradiction with each other. The appeasement whether for short-term political gain as is the situation in the Eastern Cape, or to deflect a real demand as in the case of land expropriation, legitimises the EFF and gives it political credence. This same strategy was pursued by the liberal political establishment and its intelligentsia in North America and Western Europe with devastating consequences. The appeasement legitimized these parties with the result that parties that once would receive a fraction of electoral support now are real contenders for the political throne.
But the second element of the state’s strategy is also problematic. On the face of it, the ANC’s distance and silence in the cases of political spectacle creates the impression that it is politically paralysed and has no alternative strategy to address the very real challenges that the EFF is highlighting. It is worth stating in this moment that the critique of our economic policy or the reconciliation associated with the Rainbow Nation is not new. I recall authoring an article as early as 1996 entitled The Myth of the Rainbow Nation where I questioned the possibility of building reconciliation without justice, and Vishnu Padayachee and I authored in 1999 a critique of what was then our neo-liberal economic policy. We were not the only ones undertaking these kinds of critiques. Many academics and activists warned of the neoliberal direction of our economic policy, and the social consequences thereof, long before many in the EFF did so. Indeed, many of the leadership of the EFF were still within the ANC and would respond in the most Stalinist of fashions to any semblance of critique. To be honest it is a practice that has not changed within its ranks. Nevertheless the point to highlight is that the EFF is not incorrect when it speaks about the exclusionary character of contemporary South Africa. Indeed it is largely accurate in this regard, but as a party it does not put forward a sensible political strategy to address this challenge.
This is where Ramaphosa’s ANC needs to advocate a coherent programmatic agenda to address the exclusionary character of South Africa’s contemporary political economy. It needs to clarify how it can correct for the state’s institutional failures to redistribute land, or to grow the economy in an inclusionary manner so that it not only increases employment, but also reduces inequality and poverty simultaneously. It needs to programmatically demonstrate how justice can be part of a reconciliation agenda or how the building of a cosmopolitan nation can simultaneously be compatible with our collective African-ness coming to the fore. This requires not an appeasement of the EFF, but a demonstration of how to address the challenges they highlight in a programmatic and sustainable manner. It requires Ramaphosa’s ANC to lead, rather than to co-opt the EFF, or stand aside and hope that its political contender stumbles.
Perhaps the best way to articulate the distinctiveness of the two paths is to refer to a movie currently making waves on the cinema circuit, Black Panther. One of largest box office hits in the Marvel series, the movie seems to have generated an ardent fan base because it is centred on a fictional black country, Wakanda, which avoided the perils of colonialism and as a result was able to use its natural resource, Vibranium, to develop not only a successful economy, but also a scientific and technological powerhouse. But perhaps the more useful political message of the movie is centred in the interaction between the hero, T’Challa, and its villain, Erik Killmonger. Both are advocates of a transformation of the world. T’Challa believes that this needs to be done through an engagement with the world and its transformation through a series of structural reforms. Killmonger on the other takes over the kingdom only to deploy its advanced weaponry against the world in order to take revenge for the centuries of oppression and exploitation that black people have suffered. “It’s our turn to rule,” he says, and brings to the fore the dangers of “victims becoming killers,” to paraphrase the title of Mahmood Mamdani’s book on the Rwandan genocide. T’Challa sympathises with Killmonger and the circumstances that make him what he becomes, but he nevertheless not only disagrees with him but also challenges him with an alternative path to transforming the world. He defeats him and in a memorable line, T’Challa says: “In times of crisis the foolish build barriers, but the wise build bridges.”
The NEC of the ANC should see this movie, and then internalise its political message, for it holds a strategic lesson that a thousand of its organisational pamphlets will not impart. But it is also a movie that the EFF leadership should also see (which I would be willing to pay for) and they may yet learn something from it if they can suspend their ideological blinkers long enough to consider its central political message. If both actually did this, and grappled with its central political tension, which perhaps is one that confronts all oppressed communities in their struggle for freedom, not only would these parties be strategically the sounder for it, but South Africa itself may benefit from the outcome. DM
Adam Habib is Vice Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand and writes in his personal capacity