South Africa


The threat to democracy, Part Two: The EFF

The threat to democracy, Part Two: The EFF
Professor Raymond Suttner. (Photo: Madelene Cronjé / New Frame)

The EFF relies on spectacle in order to appeal to an audience that may take at face value its claims to be bearers of a heroic, revolutionary tradition of fighting for freedom. Their practice bears little relation to that of a freedom fighter but is one of abuse and intimidation. This needs to be combatted by all who value our democracy.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

Read Part One

Last week the EFF crossed a threshold in the violation of constitutional democracy by approaching Pravin Gordhan at the Speaker’s podium and threatening him with violence, unless he stopped speaking. The EFF seemed ready to carry out this threat, and in so doing pitted themselves against the rights of any person in South Africa to freedom from bodily harm. They pitted themselves against the freedom of political association and the right to hold any political views and pursue them legally.

What does one make of the EFF moving decisively towards violence – and acting this out on the floor of the National Assembly? The ANC Veterans League and Pravin Gordhan have already warned of the EFF having a fascist tendency, as have others. I do not dispute that characterisation, but believe we need to do more work on the specific form of populism that the EFF represents, and in so doing one will be better placed to combat its threat to our social fabric and democratic order. But it is clear that, like Hitler and Mussolini, the EFF sails under false colours, claiming socialism and a range of other doctrines as their guides, when their practices raise questions about their commitment to anything beyond enrichment.

It is interesting that, despite increasing their share of the vote, the EFF has not become a significant electoral force. It combines moments of charismatic self-representation with a level of ignorance of political history, as with their reference to Indians and Gandhi (used to characterise “Indian racism” towards Africans more generally and that of Gordhan). They have no sense of Gandhi having changed from his first encounter with Africans in South Africa and continually changing over his life.

(There is no denying that the early Gandhi aligned himself with the British in many respects and made racist statements. But it is ahistorical to treat those statements in isolation from Gandhi’s developing and transforming consciousness and practices. See the work of former UN anti-apartheid head, E.S Reddy, Gandhi and Africans in South Africa, unpublished, 1993 and Gandhi and the formation of the African National Congress of South Africa, unpublished, undated. These are in my possession and available as Word documents, on request.)

This is something that the ANC understood far better, more than a century ago, and in one of their periods of decline in the 1930s a representative went to India to meet Gandhi, to seek advice on reviving the organisation. (Peter Walshe, The Rise of African Nationalism in South Africa. 1970).

Similar ignorance is evident in Malema’s reference to the UDF at Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s funeral when he said:

Mama, the UDF cabal that rejected you is here, they called a press conference to dissociate themselves from you. But you were never a member of the UDF, you were the only one who pronounced as the ANC.”

It is interesting that the notion of a cabal determining the direction of the UDF is revived by Malema. My experience in the UDF was that whenever someone was accused of corruption they blamed the accusation on the “cabal”, which came to be associated in the rhetoric, with Indians in the Natal and Transvaal Indian Congress. This reference at the funeral was intended to feed into disunity within the ANC, and likely to be used by one or other of the contending groups.

But the ignorance in the statement lies in the reference to Madikizela-Mandela never being a UDF “member”. But who was a “member” of the UDF? The UDF was established when Malema was a toddler, in 1983 (he was born in 1981). It is time that he read up on the history of the struggle in South Africa instead of relying on threats and acts of aggression. No individual was a member of the UDF. It consisted of affiliates, and those affiliates, of various kinds, had members. Anyone who is serious about “freedom” needs to make themselves conversant with the history, what happened before their own entry.

Would Madikizela-Mandela have claimed to be the only person who “pronounced as the ANC” in a country teeming with hundreds who had spent time on Robben Island, MK soldiers and others, who were part of various illegal structures of the organisation or advanced its aims in various ways?

Ignorance is also evident in the perpetuation of the SARS “rogue unit” narrative, by Malema and other EFF figures. Have they bothered to read the evidence, or like the Public Protector (PP) have they ignored all testimony that points to the perfectly lawful establishment of an investigative capacity in SARS? This was necessary to address tax evasion. Have they read the (Retired Judge Robert) Nugent Commission report and if so, why do they not take cognisance of what it says on the “rogue unit”?

Political orientation of the EFF?

What exactly is the content of the EFF as a political force in South Africa? Is it socialist, as some on the left have claimed? Many commentators, in discussing coalitions, still locate the organisation on the “opposite side of the spectrum” to the DA, meaning that the EFF is a left-wing force. Is that credible? On what basis can they claim to be socialist? What is socialist in their conduct? Rhetoric and threats without programmes, carried out by disciplined structures, cannot bear the name socialist. One of the characteristics of populism is that it may advance a range of slogans, both left and right. What differentiates it from popular organisations is that populism lacks programmes for realisation of popular goals. It is not rooted in mass organisation and does not seek accountability.

Being a socialist must have some bearing on one’s attitude to state resources. What exactly is the relationship between repeated evidence/allegations of diversion of funds in tenders and in relation to a bank set up to help the poor, VBS, and any commitment to socialism? Why do the EFF so fervently support Tom Moyane, who has been shown to bear responsibility for running down the capacity of SARS? In so doing he turned the revenue service from being a barrier against State Capture into its instrument.

The EFF attack on democracy and constitutionalism

In post-apartheid South Africa, respect for and advancing of the Constitution may sound less militant than quoting Lenin,  State and Revolution. But the Constitution is the basis for the rights of all, while apartheid was constituted on the basis of the denial of rights to black South Africans. Is the EFF committed to the values of the Constitution? That was the basis of their actions against Zuma, but how does this square with repeated anti-Indian sentiments and continued attempts to scare whites with racist or ambiguous threats?

Personally, I am not quivering after hearing or reading these anti-white sentiments on social media or the press. These are an echo of earlier ones by Zuma-ite trolls. But what I can say is that as a white, when I was in the ANC, I never personally encountered any instance of anti-white sentiment. I do not say that this was the only experience, for I cannot speak for others.

It is only since the Zuma period that trolls have made repeated anti-white remarks towards me and others. When these racist sentiments are voiced by the Zuma-ites and the EFF (who have a lot of common ground), the aim is to intimidate and silence any attempt to debate and arrive at the truth. To suppress debate is an attack on our democracy. It is particularly serious now, when we have experienced almost a decade where the minds of leading ANC politicians have been focused on looting or defending looters, and not on ideas that could make our democracy vibrant.

Even if one speaks one’s mind, despite this, do we not have to put a stop to a situation where one has to look over one’s shoulder because one might invite an attack by thugs posing as socialists or freedom fighters? Is it right that in penning this article I have at the back of my mind the possibility that one or other ruffian, dressed in pseudo revolutionary garb, will decide to “teach me a lesson”?

The practice of racism towards any one or more groups is antagonistic to the idea of building a common society, towards which we all come to bear loyalty. Clearly, the EFF has no interest in this. Its aim is to scare us and to bludgeon their way through those who disagree.

Their obsession with Pravin Gordhan and support for the PP, whose findings are now being held up to ridicule, means taking a stand against clean government and strengthening the arms of those who wish to perpetuate State Capture. Gordhan, more than most, is identified with the clean-up. It is a clean-up that may well touch some of the EFF. That is apparently what they fear and why they attempt to deal with him, if necessary, through violence.

There were earlier signs of this anti-Indian smokescreen when Ismail Momoniat, Treasury Deputy Director General, came under apparently inexplicable attackBut when it emerged that Momoniat was part of the team working on the VBS bank saga, and that it has come to implicate Floyd Shivambu and the EFF itself, the meaning of that attack became clearer. (See Carol Paton, before theVBS report emerged, implying that the EFF’s private interests accounted for some of their racist attacks and questionable actions on VBS and also in relation to the investigation into the Public Investment Corporation (PIC)“Tarnishing Treasury latest in chameleon EFF’s dubious moves” Business Day, 5 June 2018, (behind a paywall).

The collapse of the VBS bank is possibly the most substantial evidence of leading figures in the EFF and allegedly the organisation itself benefiting from the looting of the bank. (See also this, this and this.) There is also the question of Julius Malema’s friendship with and funding of accommodation by self-confessed tobacco smuggler Adriano Mazzotti.

Then there isthe prospect of the resurrection of a SARS case from some years ago against Malema, which was not finalised in the Moyane period. If the current reconstitution of SARS structures continues, that case could be revived. The EFF fear and want to prevent a thoroughgoing clean-up. This is where they make common cause with many Zuma loyalists.

Julius Malema has stated that the EFF will repeat their action against Gordhan, every time Gordhan rises to speak in the National Assembly, using pseudo military language about “battalions” and refers to Gordhan as having infiltrated the struggle.

Julius Malema’s claim that Pravin Gordhan was infiltrated into the struggle in order to act against the interests of the African majority is slanderous and presumptuous. Gordhan was a freedom fighter from the 1970s, not a self-anointed “fighter”, and he was arrested, more than once, from 1980 onwards and experienced physical torture at the hands of the apartheid regime.

Violence and the struggle

When the ANC and its allies accepted the need for negotiations it was a decision resulting from the costs of the bloodshed, borne primarily by the black population of South Africa.

People needed peace. Leaders of the ANC have failed in the years that followed, beyond having a constitution enshrining values necessary for peace, to instil a culture of non-violence and a respect for peace. The EFF that emerged from the ANC has taken the worst elements of Zuma’s militarism, in their pseudo military garb, self-styled “commander in chief”, “student commands”, “battalions” and so on.

The “war” against poverty and inequality must remain and be ongoing, but war as in militarisation – real or fake – blurs the real issues that concern the poor and should have no place in contemporary South Africa.

When your content is zero, imagery is everything and one of the messages EFF wants to send is an intimidatory one – against political opponents, and notably women journalists. They warn that we should fear what happens to those who stand in their way. This type of action has no place in a democratic state.

Why question the EFF being ‘freedom fighters’? What is a freedom fighter?

Since I am suggesting that there is no single element of the culture of a freedom fighter in the EFF, what does it mean to be a freedom fighter?

There can be no single, universally accepted definition. But we can derive meanings from our history and international history that has many examples of women and men who have devoted their lives to achieving or defending freedom – like Chief Albert Luthuli, Albertina and Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Bram Fischer, Steve Bantu Biko, Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, Lilian Ngoyi, Ruth First and many others.

Put simply, a freedom fighter is more than a person who studies theories and ideas about freedom or analyses any particular political system, even if that person is preoccupied with revolutionary doctrines.

A freedom fighter is one who is prepared to spare no effort to achieve that freedom and those efforts may take various forms and involve sacrifice. There are various degrees of commitment to freedom and readiness or necessity to sacrifice. Not everyone needs or is required or is willing to offer their life to a struggle and may still be described as a freedom fighter.

But being a freedom fighter usually requires a degree of devotion to freedom that may, when conditions require it, demand sacrifices – of various kinds. Some people have, in the past and today, committed themselves to carrying out what is needed.

Being a freedom fighter today

Again, once political freedom had been achieved in the sense that democratic elections were held in South Africa in 1994, what it meant to be a freedom fighter needed to bear a different content. It first demanded defending what had been gained in the “democratic breakthrough”. It also required advancing, deepening and broadening of the quality of that freedom, increasingly empowering all South Africans to act in political life.

It also needed, in the light of the inherited and ongoing inequality, a firm commitment to promote socioeconomic transformation, to better the lives of the poorest sections of the population. That could be under the banner of more than one doctrine.

The onset of political democracy has nevertheless meant that some people have faced similar choices to those who waged the struggle against apartheid. Indeed, partly because many democratic rights are not observed or realised, some have died resisting unlawful evictions or protesting the lack of water, healthcare, electricity, housing, land and many rights that are meant to be realised under the Constitution.

Some of the practices of apartheid policing persist into the present – targeting the poor, who are mainly black. Equally, those who resist find that they have to be prepared to be wounded or killed.

However one defines a freedom fighter, in the past or the present, it seems unlikely that the conduct of the EFF makes them candidates for that title.

Rhetoric and threats without programmes does not make a revolutionary or a freedom fighter. Being a freedom fighter is to act in advancing a programme within organised, disciplined structures.

One of the characteristics of populism is that it may advance a range of slogans, both left and right. What differentiates it from popular organisation is that populism lacks programmes for realisation of popular goals. It is not rooted in mass organisation and does not practise accountability. It often relies on spectacle rather than substance. Not only the EFF, but also many in the ANC, bear some of the responsibility for politics which lacks meaning, that bears no clear programme, that does not result from debate.

If we want to retrieve our democracy, we need to avoid romanticising those who pose in pseudo revolutionary garb and rhetoric, from wherever they derive. We need to create a space where we can engage in serious debate about our future. It can include public figures, but it ought primarily to try to reinsert members of society at large into the debate on their own future. DM

Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at Unisa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.