Opinionista Ivo Vegter 4 March 2014

Do Malema’s followers understand ‘agrarian reform’?

We know that Julius Malema does not understand economics. How can he, when he claims what he espouses is freedom? But the populist rhetoric is popular. It works. And since he's not alone on the far left, the people that respond to it ought to understand its true meaning.

Julius Malema, the former ANC Youth League leader, responded to his expulsion from the party by forming his own, under the revolutionary moniker the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Not to be confused with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which really does advocate freedom, the name of Malema’s party proves he does not understand either freedom or economics. As one wit pointed out: it is correct only in as much as they fight against economic freedom.

I have written before that his policy contradicts freedom, and that what he actually seeks is a policy of redistribution that uses force, rather than freedom, to bring prosperity to the masses.

It is fair to concede, as I have done, that he is exploiting a very real sense of injustice, particularly in relation to land ownership. At the launch of the EFF’s manifesto, Daily Maverick reported that the excesses of the ANC government, and in particular Jacob Zuma’s homestead and Cyril Ramaphosa’s expensive buffalo, are what drove one supporter into Malema’s arms. He masterfully exploited the grief of the widows of Marikana workers, whom he claims were shot by their government on behalf of the capitalist class. He invoked the ghosts of the most respected socialists of the ANC’s history, notably that of the martyr Chris Hani.

That he has been joined on the left by the powerful voice of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), which has vocally turned against the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance, makes it all the more important not to dismiss this populist appeal for what it is.

NUMSA calls for a United Front to achieve a “radical transition for full social justice”. By “radical”, a politician means “once we control the state, by revolution if necessary, to hell with the constitution”. And “social justice” is a qualifier politicians use when the term “justice” is absurd on its own.

The EFF’s election manifesto reads like a nostalgic trip through the history of communist revolutions. It is filled with grand promises of wealth, opportunity, equality and dignity, which are described as “authentic commitments and programmes, not a patchwork of empty promises and superficial reforms”.

Allow me to quote it: “Central to our programme is a struggle for democratic ownership and control of the key means of production by the people. Our programme is socialist. As a Marxist-Leninist Fanonian organisation, we believe that it is only through a socialist transformation programme, that we will end the suffering of our people.”

A good summary can be found – where else – in Daily Maverick. Here’s one line: “Rural development, land and agrarian reform will be a mainstay of the EFF government and therefore its ‘custodianship of all land will lead into equal redistribution of all land amongst all people’.”

The Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation recently quoted Malema too: “South African politician Julius Malema said in the next 20 years, Zimbabwe will be the only African country where people own their own land, adding big western powers are attacking Zimbabwe to scare South Africans from engaging in any agrarian reform.”

The phrase “agrarian reform” reminded me of another story.

There once was a young man named Saloth Sar. (Compulsive Googlers, no spoilers please, and historians, forgive the superficial sketch.)

Saloth Sar grew up in a small fishing village, with his mother and father, five brothers and a sister. They had a little land, and weren’t poor by the day’s standards. Some of his family had powerful political connections. He attended a Catholic school. His older brother recalls him as a polite boy, who never caused any trouble.

His country had been a colonial territory of a Western power for many years. As a scholarship student abroad he was exposed to the thinking of leading Marxists of the time. He also admired Mahatma Gandhi. He took up with a group of communists who campaigned for the liberation of his country from colonial rule. As a matter of policy, it celebrated the nobility of peasantry and the working class, and scorned elitist intellectualism.

Upon his return, Saloth was shocked to find how poor his family had become. They had lost their land, and the means to work it. He became a schoolteacher, and spent time with villagers in the countryside. He learned to sympathise with their poverty and their vulnerability to being exploited, and even robbed, by urban capitalists and landowners.

After his country gained its independence, it descended into a long, drawn-out struggle for political power. Elections were corrupt, and the new government held power by using the police and army. The left and the right jostled for dominance. Saloth became the liaison between the legitimate left-wing parties and the underground revolutionary communists.

Increasingly authoritarian, the government cracked down on the left. Political leaders were rounded up and newspapers were closed. When the communist party leader was arrested and murdered by the regime, Saloth stepped into the breach. He went underground, and became deeply involved in establishing an armed resistance campaign.

Its principles were broadly communist, elevating the peasants working the land as the soul of nobility and the lifeblood of the revolution.

Meanwhile, political conditions were becoming ideal for Saloth to exploit. The people of his country were angry and disillusioned. They hurt where they felt it most: in the price of food. Their government was repressive and corrupt. He did not cause the social unrest, or orchestrate what we would recognise as service delivery protests, but he learnt to take advantage of them. He consolidated his own power, becoming the supreme leader of what once was a communist collective.

As a pawn in larger conflicts, his country had also suffered. Foreign governments had supported an unjust colonial regime, first, and the United States later became involved in secretive missions that killed thousands of his compatriots. He effectively used the resentment against Western imperialism and all it stood for as propaganda. In the Cold War, caught up in an ugly proxy war, he firmly sided with the communists.

When the leader of the country was deposed by a coup, he became an avowed enemy of the new rulers. The former ruler joined Saloth in an unlikely alliance against the corrupt military government. Neither had a great deal of real power as leaders of a revolutionary insurgency, but they were determined. With clandestine support from foreign powers, notably China, the pair awaited their opportunity, while building a grass-roots army of the people that rejected middle-class intellectuals and welcomed the honest, oppressed peasant.

His power grew in the countryside. Twenty years after gaining freedom from colonial domination, he felt that the rural poor were no better off. He sought to root out the legacy of colonialism entirely, by returning to the simplicity of village life. He prescribed modest norms and values, including dull, uniform dress codes. He dealt harshly with any display of foreign influence. He asked, “If the result of so many sacrifices was that the capitalists remain in control, what was the point of the revolution?”

While his growing power had resulted in his international recognition as the country’s de facto leader, extending even to a seat for his party at the UN, he forged ahead with the party’s “authentic commitments and programmes” for “control of the state”. Call it a “radical transition for social justice”, if you will. It certainly was not a “patchwork of empty promises and superficial reforms”.

Central to his thinking was a policy of “agrarian reform”. He, too, believed that every peasant should own equal shares of the country’s land. And he was going to make damn sure that they got it.

Dismayed at the “capitalist tendencies” he saw in the educated urban elite, who rejected socialism as soon as the enforcers had moved on, he relocated the populations of entire cities to go work in the countryside. Resistance was futile.

When he took the capital, the largest such resettlement in history began. The city was left a ghost town, all vestiges of capitalism and prosperity having been destroyed.

Society was reorganised on principles of equality and collectivism. Money and property were abolished. Children were educated by the party. Food was harshly rationed by the local authority. Labour was regimented and forced. Political opposition was treated with extreme prejudice. Suspected counter-revolutionaries were hunted down, tortured and killed.

Ultimately, most of the people who were forced out of the cities and into the countryside, classed as inferior to the true peasants and unnecessary for sustaining the nation, died of disease and starvation in the forced labour camps. Many were simply exterminated. As Saloth said: “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.”

By the time Saloth was removed from power by invasion, four years after he took the capital city, some two million of his countrymen and -women lay dead in the rice paddies and mass graves. A quarter of the population had been slaughtered.

This is the story of “radical agrarian reform”. The polite boy who never caused any trouble, born as Saloth Sar, is known to history as Pol Pot. His revolutionary army, named after the dominant ethnic group of his country, was the Khmer Rouge, or “Red Khmer”. His country, Cambodia, then known as Kampuchea, will forever be known as the Killing Fields. DM

PS. The BBC has a brief obituary of Pol Pot, who died in 1998. The New York Times has a much longer one. Another account of his life and rule, noting the influence of US policy, is by Yale historian Ben Kiernan. For documentation on the Cambodian genocide of 1975 to 1979, see the Sleuk Rith Institute. For more on quantifying the scale of the slaughter, see Counting Hell, by Bruce Sharp. For an attempt to place Pol Pot’s brutality in the context of Cambodia’s violent history, see Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, a book by Philip Short. Another valuable account in book form is Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, by Kim DePaul. If you haven’t seen the 1984 film The Killing Fields, based the life of Dith Pran, a Cambodian, as told to New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg, go and rent it. For more on the early life of Saloth Sar, see this article in the New York Times and this interview with the man himself in the Phnom Penh Post. That paper also has a sharp word or two for killing fields denialists.


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