The double album – a venerable pop musical milestone for any band that takes itself (too) seriously – signals artistic overreach, and is almost always followed by a creative meltdown.
Your words, once heard, they can place you in a faction
My words may disturb, but at least there’s a reaction
— ‘Don’t Damn Me”, Use Your Illusion I’
Guns N’ Roses
So what are we to make of the events that took place on Thursday, 5 July, at the EFF’s Braamfontein headquarters, where the party mounted the political equivalent of the double LP: a two-part press conference? The first featured the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) reading a joint statement concerning land. This was followed by the EFF’s solo offering. Over two-and-a-half hours in length, this overstuffed non-masterpiece sketched out a future the EFF may find immediately expedient, but ultimately costly: they are becoming a single-issue African nationalist populist party, trying to find a way back to a home that disintegrates before their eyes.
New to the fledgling populist playbook: the double-header press conference. Happily, the butt-numbing session began with one of the EFF’s finest spells of 2018, a genuine return to form. Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema, along with newly controversial deputy president Floyd “Knuckles” Shivambu, Secretary-General Godrich Gardee, Deputy Secretary Hlengiwe Maxon and Treasurer Leigh-Ann Mathys, were joined by Contralesa’s full bench, led by Secretary-General Zolani Mkiva. The idea was that the traditional leaders and the Fighters would read out a joint statement regarding the land issue, on which they had apparently reached consensus.
This, I need to emphasise, was the good part.
“On the land question, Contralesa and the EFF are in full agreement that Section 25 [of the Constitution] must be amended,” said Mkiva, referring to the recent blockbuster decision in parliament that paves the way for the expropriation of land without compensation.
“We further agreed that the state should be the custodian of all land.”
That sounds quite nice, but Contralesa’s members have always maintained a queasy relationship with the state, one that successive ANC regimes have failed to render coherent. Are the various chiefs/royals/former apartheid collaborators destined to remain mini-monarchs of their own re-upped Bantustans, existing on the fringes of democracy until the end of time? Or are they the rightful leaders of their subjects, serving as provisional conduits for governments with which they work seamlessly in concert?
These are the questions that have launched thousands of PhD theses, to the enormous detriment of South Africa’s trees.
If the country wasn’t so jittery about the land issue, and if more of us were willing to recast the debate as one of the more positive and transformative events in the country’s history, it would become obvious that traditional leaders have a role to play in the negotiations. And while Contralesa is a special interest group with a narrow set of priorities – i.e. protecting the power and influence of the traditional leadership – there were points of convergence with the EFF that made the conversation at the very least worth having.
Contralesa’s pitch goes something like this: after Section 25 is fiddled with, traditional leaders would become custodians of “traditionally administered” land, subject to the will of the state. The details – in which the devil lurks – would be figured out after the legislation was amended. As for the exclusion of women, the epidemic of nepotism, outright corruption: please send all queries to the aforementioned devil.
In short: first expropriate every square inch of land in totality, then place it in the care of the state and its proxies. Following that, set up agencies that distribute the land for various purposes: industrial, agricultural, religious, recreational.
“What we are busy with now is the reclamation of South Africa’s land to its rightful owners,” said Mkiva.
This is not an unpopular idea in South Africa.
Nor is it free of Netflix-worthy drama. The day before the press conference, King Goodwill Zwelithini, the Zulu regent/business mogul – and another of the country’s living, breathing avatars of monopoly capital – had threatened secession and war should anyone fuck with his Ingonyama Trust, the vastly lucrative 33% of KwaZulu-Natal that represents his eternal meal ticket (complemented, of course, by the R60-million in state funding his office receives as an annual stipend). Paying fealty to the feudal lord has become a national pastime: on Friday, President Cyril Ramaphosa showed up in KZN, insisting that “we have no intention to tamper with the land that is being administered by our Chiefs on behalf of the people”.
High level talks are to follow, as they always are.
Indeed, the king has become a kingmaker, and keeping him happy-ish is now the most urgent matter concerning our national politics. Mkiva seemed sheepishly cognisant of how the ludicrously corrupt Ingonyama Trust obliterates Contralesa’s contention that its members will serve as responsible custodians of the land.
“[The trust] will be subject to a ‘fast-tracked’ debate,” he said. “We are all confident that these issues will be solved by honest debates.”
Sure, maybe. But Floyd Shivambu felt it necessary to remind us that, while Zwelithini is Ingonyama’s sole trustee, and while the Ingonyama board leases the land for a variety of purposes, “it’s not a secret that the trust generates income by leasing this land. We do not know if this is consistent with the Constitution. So, we say, let us engage, and discuss what should be the relationship between the royal family and the land. If we abolish that relationship, it means abolishing the traditional leadership, and we don’t feel like that should be the EFF’s position.”
A properly radical Marxist movement would not bother wasting time or effort on reactionary outfits like Ingonyama or Contralesa. But this here is Realpolitik, and the EFF has lived its entire life in the nutso South African purgatory between sense and nonsense. There are no fewer than 840 traditional councils in South Africa – a “collision of innumerable wills”, as Tolstoy phrased it. Despite the conflicts and disparate outlooks, Mkiva wanted to remind us that traditional leadership was the vector through which “most black people” engaged with authority, closer to the socialist uBuntu philosophy than was the Western-style individualistic capitalism that has brought us shopping malls, faux-Tuscan housing estates, and Helen Zille tweets.
“At least it is land under the administration of Africans,” said Mkiva. “We want to make it very clear to the country that we want the focus to be on the 87% of stolen land, not land that was already in the hands of Africans. There may be problems, and we’ll deal with that.”
This provisional love-in with the EFF – which the body language suggested was very provisional – appeared to be something of a warning for the ANC. Contralesa president Kgosi Setlamorago Thobejane’s animus dates back to the 2017 High Level Panel on land reform, chaired by Kgalema Motlanthe. Earlier in 2018, the former president was severely uncomplimentary regarding the role of traditional leaders in just about any sphere of governance.
“The EFF has never insulted our chiefs, kings and leaders, by calling us ‘tin pot dictators’,” the Kgosi said. “They have never called us names, never even for one day. Watch this space. Watch this space.”
Switch records, on to album number two.
The flip side of the flip side started off promisingly enough, with Malema reading out a statement covering the local political scene. Earlier, Malema had made a case for supporting King Zwelithini.
“Why should everyone else speak and the king shouldn’t speak?” he asked. “In the [public land reform] hearings, we heard much stronger things. We heard boers say, if anyone touches our land, there’ll be blood on the floor. But we dismiss it. It’s an emotive issue. So we don’t see the king’s statement as anything else than a contribution to the debate. All of these contributions will not intimidate us, this is a democracy. And anything can happen in a democracy.”
That it can.
“I have not met one white person who believes in land expropriation,” he continued. “Even a white hobo can’t imagine a black person owning land. Because everything we touch we dirty. That’s what they say about us.”
So far, business as usual – a press conference filled with colourful South Africana and rich anecdotes regarding indigent racist white folk. He lamented the rise in petrol prices. He talked about the party’s election strategy workshops. He went on about the new mining charter.
But when Malema started talking about the South African Revenue Service, the EFF’s new strategy took sudden and startling shape. Keep in mind that the party’s National Chairperson, Advocate Dali Mpofu, is representing former SARS poobah Tom Moyane, at the SARS Commission of Inquiry, which is tasked with investigating the financial death midget’s vastly larcenous behaviour.
Malema portrayed the revenue service as an institution locked in a battle between the neoliberal centre, led by Minister of Public Enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, and the kleptocrats, comprised of Zuma’s old cronies. There was a dangerous regrouping of neoliberal market-driven forces, led by Gordhan and his Indian cabal, purging its way through the revenue service and other public enterprises.
“We will never support Tom Moyane,” spat Malema, confusingly.
“However, we shall never support punishment without due course.”
He claimed that Gordhan was removing cadres from boards without due process, and Moyane had been caught in this sweep. It was a question, he said, not of guilt, but of due process, of justice:
“We just wake up with acting boards turned permanent [by Gordhan]. They are all arbitrary. The majority [of offenders] are removed without taking responsibility.”
But Malema has a long history with SARS, one that is immensely complicated by the fact that cigarette smuggling kingpin Adriano Mazzotti (or, at least, his partner in crime, Kyle Phillips) paid off Malema’s R1-million tax bill, and also coughed up the EFF’s 2014 general election registration fee. All of this is, by the way, on record. Adding to the muck, while Moyane was commissioner at SARS, the institution conveniently erased Mazzotti’s R600-million tax bill.
The optics on this are absolutely wretched.
Of all the people in South Africa, Mazzotti is the only person who’d stump the EFF the R200,000 registration fee? Mpofu couldn’t land a Steve Hofmeyr hate speech gig and scrabble up the cash? Journalist Jacques Pauw had reminded Twitter of these facts the day before the press conference, and an incensed Malema had demanded a retraction that he was unlikely to receive.
“We’ve never denied knowing Adriano Mazzotti,” said Malema. “Pauw is lying. Perpetuating this racist nonsense that black people can’t act alone.”
But Pauw wasn’t lying. What’s more, Dali Mpofu’s support of Moyane presents a real political problem for the EFF. (“We argue with Dali all the time,” said Malema, resignedly.) The financial death midget deserves the right to a lawyer. But an EFF-affiliated lawyer? For a public commission, where Mpofu is presenting what appear to be deliberately fallacious legal arguments? And so the Pauw contention becomes compelling: the EFF, along with elements within the ANC, is attempting to discredit SARS and destabilise the “reform” process, with the added benefit of helping their backers (and themselves) immensely in the process.
That scribbling sound you hear is Steve Bannon and other populist nationalists taking notes.
This, sadly, is the Shostakovich-crossed-with-Rick-Astley-conducted-by-Ol’-Dirty Bastard’s-ghost part.
Boringly, Malema now began an extended jeremiad aimed at the media.
“There has been a big degeneration. Journalism has been embedded since Ramaphosa.”
He called broadcaster eNCA “a political party”, saying:
“We have to decide on what to do with eNCA. They’ve cut out the EFF completely. If we do wrong things, report it. If we manhandle a journalist in Parliament, report it. But we have to decide what to do about them.”
This is also known as a threat.
Sure, the mainstream media has mostly had zero circumspection in connection with Ramaphosa and Gordhan. And yes, there is far too much PC mumbling about Not All Whites and Not All Indians and Not All Jews and Not All Skateboarders and Not All Ukulele Players. But that PC-ness extends to pussyfooting around the sheer lack of talent in the political class in this country – a dearth not so much of competence, but of humility, morality and humanity.
The EFF leadership has accumulated enough education to staff the faculty of a medium-sized university, and yet their cravenness contributes to a scenario in which South Africa has precisely zero viable political options, a complete absence of reasonable choice.
This, and not a solvable issue like land reform, represents our abiding crisis.
Combine this with the fragility that extends its way through the party – an entitlement that insists that criticism must only happen on their terms, on their time, employing their lexicon. Over the course of 2018, Mpofu, Shivambu and Malema have had all the space in the world to make their various arguments. Some are cogent. Others are two-and-a-half-hour press conferences.
While we’re at it, we should probably dwell for a moment on the ‘Indian Question’ that the leadership has declaimed on at length. Again, only a fool or a dissembler would discount the existence of anti-black racism in the Indian community, and this has massive structural implications on wealth distribution in KZN and elsewhere. Still, Shivambu’s racially charged criticism of deputy director of the Treasury, Ismail Momoniat, the hacking away at Gordhan, and Malema’s singling out of journalists Ranjeni Munusamy and Ferial Haffajee, suggests a definitive race-baiting strategy: whip up anti-Indian sentiment in order to vie for support in KZN (where the EFF has less than no chance of gaining any serious traction), while discrediting institutions such as Treasury and the media as “minority run”, all for one low populist price.
There’s nothing wrong with calling out reporters for perceived bias. But there is something properly misguided in suddenly decrying criticism that is very late in coming – after all, never has a political party been blown longer and more lovingly than has the EFF. The EFF does not get to call all the shots regarding its coverage – that’s just preposterous. And while Malema and company are deciding what to do about eNCA, they might confer the fact that, had Zuma got his way, and had the South African press been choked into submission, the EFF central command team would be sharing a very small cell with some very unfriendly people. Or worse.
An inviolable axiom: curtail press freedom, curtail political opposition.
There are other things in politics outside of expediency, one of which is: don’t be trickier than you need to be. The EFF flip-flopping and inconsistencies have been dizzying, and while Malema is quick to call out disrespect for Africans, one can’t help feel like his party has taken the decision to regard the South African electorate as a bunch of morons.
That’s not a particularly good idea.
The new EFF strategy, however, is becoming bountifully, beautifully clear.
First, own the land issue.
Second, own the race issue:
“President Ramaphosa is so helpless, and Pravin is running all over him,” said Malema.
“Pravin is president of this country. He does as he wishes. We are not going to be ruled by him. Those Zuma thugs were just stealing petty money. I’m not scared of the Indian cabal. This is how they did it in the [United Democratic Front]. We will talk about them because they derailed the revolution.”
Third: become the cracked-out ninja assassins for whomever comes along with either money or professions of short-term friendship. Leap this way and that, high-kicking the likes of Tom Moyane until he requires legal representation, in which case: Dali Mpofu!
In other words, a total lack of consistency, backed up by total ideological incoherence.
The EFF will win ground in 2019. They will become decision-makers in provinces and in Parliament, and not because anyone is buying this stuff. But because the ANC has already been sold. And this is South Africa’s tragedy: there are no alternatives.
Anyway, what do populists do when the population’s interest wanes? They double down. One day soon, and from solitary confinement, we’ll look back at the two-and-a-half-hour press conference, and remember the brevity with fondness. DM
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