South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER

The making of the BLEFF — Post-Zuma, there is nothing left of the left

Julius Malema (C), leader of the opposition party Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), addresses supporters at the launch of the party's local election manifesto in Soweto, near Johannesburg, South Africa, 30 April 2016. EPA/CORNELL TUKIRI

This would be boring if it wasn’t so sad.

To the immense joy of right-wing crypto-fascist militia membersSandton corporatists, DA voters and Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters are currently expending huge amounts of political capital portraying Private Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan as the anti-black leader of a secretive Indian cabal, and as Prime Evil in a plot to destroy the worthy cadres deployed by Zuma Inc. to gut our national institutions.

It is now Malemas self-appointed task to undermine the Zondo Commissions State Capture Inquiry, along with the Nugent Commission into the South African Revenue Service (Malema is, all of a sudden, a Tom Moyane fan), and anything to do with the South African Reserve Bank, which recently liquidated the corpse of VBS Mutual Bank an apparent funding fount for the EFF, and many others. Before reading his latest (implicit) broadside against Gordhan, its worth keeping in mind that Malema was once a big opponent of everything that the Zuma ANC had wrought: for many of us, the new contrarianism is a bit exhausting. Nonetheless, here it is:

Now, lets be clear: South Africa is to racism what France is to baguettes, and the Commander-in-Chief has had every right to call out white, and sometimes Indian, privilege over the years(I’d argue that from launching the EFF until 2018, he was excessively moderate in this regard.) And nor is Pravin Gordhan a god. He served two terms as finance minister in one of the most economically unequal countries on the planet. He is a tough backroom bare-knuckle brawler. He was involved in the bullshit 2015 Operation Fiela clean-up nonsense, which was an intra-ministerial crime dragnet that was far too wide and aggressive in its remit. He endorsed the National Development Plan, which contrary to popular belief doesn’t magically evince great policy initiatives that are undermined only by poor implementation. And he’s a Marxist centrist, which makes no fucking sense at all.

Fight him on points of ideology, and it’s difficult to see how youd lose. Fight him on points of corruption, however, and you look like a fool.

After all, Pravin Gordhan has been one of the cleanest men in a filthy party — if youre in the market for a biblical reference, think of him as the ANC’s Noah. He’s made mistakes of policy, certainly, and he must be held to account for them. But hes never subverted the way the ANCs mainstream Great Thinkers designed this country to function: as an efficient, corruption-free developmental state driven by state-owned enterprises, which pays out subsistence level grants to tens of millions of its citizensa system tacitly underwritten by financial sector that exchanged tight regulation for a guaranteed monopoly and the rule of law, which in turn protected entrenched white wealth and enriched a plutocratic cluster across the racial spectrum.

Thats not how its worked out — or rather, that is how its worked out, it just hasnt worked out. And thats largely because the ANC has gutted governance capacity, deployed useless, incompetent cadres into big jobs, and stolen literally all of the money, while the private sector either off-shored its wealth or insisted on sitting on it until better days(And no, these are not better days.)

Once upon a time, Malema understood this, and fought (effectively) to subvert it. He knew how ANC corruption worked because hed spent most of his life inside the congress playing the Gucci loafer game. He got out as cleanly as could be expected, and went on to perhaps the most spectacularly entertaining political run in the history of this country. He started the process of decolonising parliament and played the lawfare game as well as anyone. He rewired the mainframe, no question.

But the day after Zuma was vanquished, the political opposition in this country made like an old dog, gave its collective balls one last, loving slurp, and loped off to die under a tree. The DA emerged as a hybrid white-libertarian/black-liberal/anti-foreigner party, which would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragically odd. And the EFF transformed itself into a populist Black nationalist party, which now seems to focus on the manifest unfairness by which former Zuma men are treated by the Pravin Vader-led stormtroopers within the various and unfolding commissions of inquiry. The EFF is currently wasting time and resources on the following, as crafted by Floyd Shivambu and published in these pages:

[…]Gordhan, the current Minister of Public Enterprises, has established a parallel State and a source of authority in the same way he did during the period of the United Democratic Front (UDF). As will be cogently and empirically illustrated in the perspective here, PG, as his protégés refer to him, employs a combination of narcissism, self-righteousness, manipulation and threats to domesticate African comrades, whilst his decisions and real intentions are about protection and empowerment of primary people of Indian descent masqueraded as transformation, and in alliance with the white capitalist establishment.

It didn’t have to be this way. Despite what right-wingers and self-righteous liberals will tell you, there was nothing inevitable about this turn of events. Had the EFF worked on a post-Zuma programme pre-post-Zuma, they would not have found themselves in their current position, which has eschewed the radical for the reactionary, and does less than zero to fulfil their professed mandate of uplifting the poor. All too often, they appear to be fighting for failed men or institutions who have either allegedly funded them or could cover for them, or both. (By contrast, they demanded that former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene be fired, and hated recently shit-canned, um, resigned Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba with probably more gusto than it was worth.)

Their inconsistencies appear totally self-serving, and in this they seem to be morphing into a grander version of Black First Land First (BLF), the EFF breakaway sect funded by the Guptas so that a black party would provide cover-fire for the family, Zuma, and their network of beneficiaries.

But heres the thing: corruption doesnt wear blackface. It doesn’t appropriate. It isn’t raced. It isn’t gendered. It is the one truly non-racial, non-binary, gender-neutral intersectionally-inclusive endeavour undertaken by our species. Anyone can do it, and pretty much everyone in South Africa does. Former SARS commissioner Tom Moyanewho according to the EFF was improperly dismissed, is not some beleaguered black manchild who deserves to be protected from the forces of white and brown monopoly capital. Hes the hack who willingly and actively gutted the revenue service and sank South Africa so far in the shitter that some real bad-ass white folk — AKA the International Monetary Fund — will one day be forced to throw us a lifeline. VBS was not some superbly run financial service undermined by the forces of white capital. Its managers willingly and actively stole money from its customers, most of whom were either broke municipalities or average South Africans hoping to save in order to afford to bury their loved ones.

As for corruption perpetrated by whites, the EFF need go no further than Sandton — if soap commercial demographic diversity is what theyre after, theyll find it around the corner from their favourite watering holes. But theyve never been consistent in their attacks against banks or other white- or foreign-owner corporates. Theyll knock over mannequins in H&M because of a racially insensitive advertisement, but they wont knock over mannequins in H&M because the clothing is made by exploited brown brothers and sisters in far-off lands, while the South African manufacturing sector is left to rot away into nothingness.

The two needn’t be mutually exclusive, and the latter genre — instant and photogenic reactions to acts of racism — certainly results in its own form of catharsis and change. But its worth asking how it contributes to undermining an entire system that is manifestly racist by design. In other words, if the EFF is chasing photo-ops while becoming a stalwart defender of a handful of connected and rich black Africans, how is it serving the majority of black Africans who are not rich and connected? This kind of ethno-nationalist myopia opens up vast ideological sink-holes, and the EFF are walking right into them. You cannot provide cover-fire for state capture cadres and shitty mutual funds AND be defenders of the poor. It just doesnt work that way.

Have the EFF squandered the five years since their inception? By no means. Their lawfare tactics and political nous were essential to defeating the Zuma regime. Their ground game in certain parts of the country remains enormously effective, and theyve been supporting land occupations in crowded townships like Alexandra and Seshego that have resulted in genuinely interesting deals with (white) landowners. Indeed, the ANC and the DA would have continued to play whack-a-mole with land reform had the EFF not so skillfully pushed the issue.

That said, because of the EFF’s recent loss of focus, the momentum behind expropriation without compensation is fizzling away. Ramaphosas rolling commissions were meant to serve as a dilatory tactic, and they may yet prove to be successful in that regard: in a country with severe attention deficit disorder, the political will behind developing a comprehensive and all-encompassing land reform policy evaporates by the day. The Ramaphosa ANC may soon find itself in the position to make a centrist end-run around land reform policy, and create a “solution” that a) isnt fair, b) doesnt help or satisfy poor black Africans and c) serves as another stop-gap until something more permanent can be developed in 2060.

No political party can afford to give away the ball when it is inside the other sides penalty box.

The absolute worst part, though, is that the EFF is a party run by men in their 30s who dont seem to have a new idea between them. Their founding manifesto is now almost six years old — it was written in a different world, and it was conjured from the warmed-over Marxism that has always characterised the ANC’s so-called left. Read it: there is not a grain of genuine inspiration to be found therein, although at the time it was a mandate the country desperately needed in order to counter to the 25-year dominance of failed centrism.

While their Central Command Team is lorded over by a PhD, a Marxist scholar, one of the best legal strategists in the country, and a president who has been relentlessly self-improving with regard to his education, their lack of real-world curiosity mimics the gerontocrats in the ANC. In my discussions with them over the years, Ive never heard them express any interest in how new forms of technology could help the disadvantaged; they have not travelled to international leftist conferences to glean new modes of thinking; leaving aside Rhodes and Fees Must Fall, theyve formed few alliances with leftist organizations or civil society; theyve been all but mute on the LGBTQ issues that form the bedrock of campus leftism; on gender parity theyve been a joke. Meanwhile, theyve solicited an endorsement from the most patriarchal and conservative corners of South Africas body politic, namely the chiefs and Bantustan warlords of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) — the very apartheid hangovers that the EFF promised to vanquish back in 2013. (Better allies might have been Sustaining the Wild Coast or Abahlahli baseMjondolo, but what do I know?)

Once again, it didnt have to be this way. The current iteration of the EFF is the result of deliberate choices, in part driven by financial desperation, that were made after the fall of Zuma. None of the nuances and difficult political work were expended to create a genuine leftist platform, and the strategy was to fall back to the default position as the ANC youth league in exile — which, by the way, is ipso facto a reactionary move. And so the EFF has turned itself into a most curious political specimen: an ersatz liberation-era African nationalist political formation that doesnt even have the self-awareness to think of itself as retro.

Never mind the itty-bitty money that has trickled into the EFF from the likes of VBS bank and the cigarette mafia. South Africa has been robbed of a leftist party, and for that Malema and company can never be forgiven. DM

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