The Economic Freedom Fighters this week celebrates the 10th anniversary of its creation. This is a landmark event in SA’s democratic-era politics, and to rank-and-file EFF members it is no doubt a moment to savour.
Nonetheless, over the past month or so there have been several initiatives that sought to place the EFF on the right side of a future for which nobody can be held responsible. It is that absurd.
The most recent of these initiatives was three pieces, reportedly written by Gumani Tshimomola, EFF chief researcher in Parliament, in July and published in respectable newspapers, under the chapeau “What South Africa can learn from China”. Tshimomola leaves out important factors in China’s success.
The three easy pieces, easy for the way they slipped into the mainstream without causing a ripple, correctly praise China’s development achievements, a story which is well worth repeating, defending and emulating.
There are, however, aspects of the China story that are bigger than the provincial vulgarity, and the intellectual vacuity that stands out among the EFF’s most prominent leaders as they drift further towards populism, ethnonationalism (of a particular kind), and a 21st-century iteration of fascism.
The EFF presents itself in early Soviet imaginaries as Marxist-Leninist, with Frantz Fanon’s ideas as a public relations afterthought. Just parenthetically, it may want to find out what role white monopoly capital had in helping Fanon get to Washington, DC, where he died in 1961.
The movement associates itself with “Chinese communism” with heavy doses of rather convenient intellectual occlusion which turns Tshimomola’s three easy pieces into rather vacuous encomia. Let’s take a brief step back to the words of Floyd Shivambu (who, when he speaks, make us wonder if we have not suffered enough) in July 2021.
“As revolutionary forces that subscribe to Marxism-Leninism, we [the EFF] are always inspired and driven by so many achievements of a revolutionary movement which defied all odds to lead one of the most successful and still growing socialist economies in the present age… China has exponentially grown its economy over the last 40 years to account for almost 20% of the global economy and trade and it has uplifted more than 700 million people from absolute poverty. All these happened under the superior logic of Marxism-Leninism,” wrote Shivambu.
Three easy pieces in three-step disharmony
Tshimomola’s three essays — we should probably accept that he wrote them himself and that it was not prepared by a nameless and faceless bureaucrat — miss at least three important issues, each one of which hollows out the encomium.
In terms of actual policies, tactics and strategy, it conveniently glosses over things that the EFF would rather not broach — at least not publicly. In the first piece, published on 9 July, the writer glibly dismisses the early 1960s as “a period of rapid transformation”. The immediate problem is that transformations do not occur at the flick of a switch; they are preceded and followed by deliberative policies, interventions and states of affairs.
In other words, whatever happened “between 1963 and 1965”, (Tshimomola’s parcelling of time isolated from human agency) was an extension of the four of five years that preceded and followed it; the period of the Cultural Revolution, the Great Famine and Mao’s Great Leap Forward.
That was the period when the official state line, carried by The People’s Daily, urged that “peasants must practise strict economy… Live with the utmost frugality and eat only two meals a day, one of which should be soft and liquid.”
The development economist Amartya Sen studied the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, the Ethiopian famines of 1973 and 1974, the Bangladesh famine of 1974, and famines in the African Sahel during the 1970s, and concluded that famines are caused by people in power and their diabolical self-serving policies.
Anyway, the EFF’s glib reference to “a period of rapid transformation” has echoes of the Chinese government describing the Great Famine of 1959-1961/62 as “Three Years of Natural Disasters” which was then rephrased as “Three Years of Difficulty” in the early 1980s.
Chinese officials (for example, Songlin Yang of Henan Provincial Development Research Center, Zhengzhou, China) have placed the mortality rate of the “Years of Difficulty” at between two and four million deaths. Western critics place the death toll as high as 15 million.
Writing in the journal In Defence of Marxism, John Peter Roberts described Mao’s Great Leap Forward as a “Stalinist adventure” that was “inherently dictatorial” and averse to “self-reform… in a democratic direction”. Whatever you chose to believe, the transformation might have been “rapid,” according to the EFF, but the cost in human life was horrific.
Bear in mind, here, the EFF’s politics of revenge, cries for spilling revolutionary blood and warn-speak of genocide. “Warn-speak” is a way of understanding Julius Malema’s statement that the EFF was not calling for the killing of whites “for now”. In other words, he is warning that there may yet be a time such a call does go out.
We are expected, then, to take Tshimomola’s word and ignore the death rates of the late 1950s and early 1960s because it was part of that “period of rapid transformation” — and not worthy of inclusion in analyses of China’s post-war development trajectory.
EFF non-negotiables at odds with China’s reforms
A second oversight — let us again accept good intentions on the part of Tshimomola — is that China’s reforms and development of the past three or four decades culminated in almost everything that the EFF rejects.
Should they come to power, and after they have meted biblical punishment on people whom they consider to be “non-African”, the EFF will nationalise “mines, banks and other strategic sectors of the economy without compensation” (the second of the seven “non-negotiables” in its constitution).
Having nationalised industries, the EFF will place “everything in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”, Benito Mussolini’s formulation of the totalitarian fascist state.
What China has done is open that country up to foreign investors, while the EFF distrusts white monopoly capitalism, which in their lexicon refers to “non-Africans”. The EFF opposes liberal international institutions and would insist on “decoupling” from the global political economy and inward-looking ethnonational political economic policies.
China purposefully joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, and senior Chinese officials hold high-powered positions in the World Bank (Tianwei Zhang is an alternate executive director and Junhong Chang is an executive director at the World Bank).
While the EFF would make it difficult or impossible for “non-Africans” to invest in South Africa, foreign direct investment (FDI) in China averaged $496-hundred-million (Chinese counting unit) from 1997 until 2023, reaching an all-time high of $1,891-hundred-million in December 2022 and a record low of $18.32-hundred-million in January 2000. Official data, provided by the Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China, shows that FDI (into China) fell by 2.7% from a year earlier to $98-billion, in the first half of 2023.
It would not be irrational, or even wrong, to suggest that the EFF’s “non-negotiables” do not make room for that kind of foreign investment, unless Malema and Shivambu can get an African country to invest that kind of money in South Africa, as a means to avoid “non-Africans” altogether.
The EFF is also quite keen on getting its hands on the South African Reserve Bank, and on the future of the country’s currency. They are committed to total control of all aspects of the political economy.
‘We are all capitalists now’
Let us consider a third aspect of Chinese political economy that Tshimomola fails to fully grasp. The Chinese have settled on state-led capitalism, something which the EFF seems to find really difficult to acknowledge, and which I will discuss briefly below.
In 2006, the governor of the Chinese central bank, Zhou Xiaochuan, addressed the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and made the call to his comrades that the renminbi be set free.
“Many of you, I know, do not want the market to set our exchange rate, because you believe the party must ultimately control everything. But we must face facts. It is only thanks to the prosperity created by letting the market economy operate that we remain in power. Like it or not, comrades, we are all capitalists now,” Zhou told his comrades.
How then, do we understand Tshimomola’s very selective celebration, and apparently vacuous encomia of China’s success?
Politics of revenge
Well, on the face of things, the three aspects referred to here — the destruction and violence of the late 1950s and early 1960s; the FDI from liberal capitalist investors upon which the Chinese political economic success is built; and the acceptance that “we are all capitalists now” — are hidden from view because they do not sit well with the EFF’s totalitarian objectives, and its ethnonationalism of a particular kind.
My understanding is that the great (historical) global political economic shift that has been under way for most of the past three decades lies beyond the EFF’s field of cognition.
As a crude populist, and terribly parochial and intellectually provincial party, the EFF relies on demagoguery to manipulate emotions, and is fixated with the politics of revenge, of meting out biblical punishment (children of land thieves and colonialists have to be punished), and devil take the hindmost.
When considered in the longue durée, or even in shorter historical terms of shifts since the end of the Cold War, the post-war liberal international order and the dominance of liberal capitalism are gradually shown up for their weaknesses and shortcomings.
China’s historic political economic expansion, the upliftment from poverty of millions of people, and a return to its Golden Age (as in India), sit in disharmony with what Shivambu described as “the superior logic of Marxist-Leninism”.
If the EFF were not a violent threat to South African society we would probably ignore Tshimomola’s vacuous encomia, but the EFF has to be taken seriously. It has positioned itself as a paramilitary force with “commanders” and “ground forces,” and Malema believes he will be president of South Africa.
What is clear is that the EFF’s drift towards fascism has, in part, been driven by the politics of performance and is devoid of original ideas and obsessed with drawing attention only to itself. Its vision of a future South Africa is decidedly Stalinist and with its unoriginality it reads only what it wants to read to determine what its policies are.
Again, we have to remember Baudelaire’s observation that the devil’s “cleverest wile” is to make people believe that he does not exist. DM