South Africa: The EFF Before the Elections—a Manifestation of the Radical Mood

The rally took place at a capacity crowd of more than 56,000 people at Orlando Stadium in Soweto, a township with deep revolutionary roots and immense historic and symbolic significance to the South African working class. It is not only the biggest township but also the country’s biggest working class area. The event was held near the site where the Soweto Uprisings of June 16, 1976 began. Those uprisings started when the police opened fire on protesting students. It marked the end of the postwar boom of South African capitalism and the revival of the student protest movement. This culminated in the revolutionary storms in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

The enthusiasm for the rally was palpable to see from early in the morning. The gates of the stadium had to be opened as early as 8 a.m., five hours before the manifesto was to be launched, to prevent congestion outside of the stadium. What was particularly noticeable was the distinct lack of large numbers of private vehicles outside. People arrived at the event mainly on foot or by bus and taxi. This was reflected in the composition of the crowds which were mainly from the working class, students, and the poor. The party called the rally a “festival of the poor.”

The ruling class in panic

The EFF rally was preceded by a hysterical campaign of lies, slander, distortions, and attempted intimidation on a part of the ruling class. On the day of the rally, the Democratic Alliance (DA), the main bourgeois party, launched a scandalous smear campaign on social media, calling the EFF “too radical” and “too extreme to govern.” They sent out thousands of text messages calling on people not to support the EFF rally. They even flew an aircraft over Orlando Stadium with a DA banner attached to it.

But this campaign backfired spectacularly. It is precisely the radical nature of the EFF which makes it appealing to the masses. The attempted sabotage revealed the DA’s true colors and demonstrated that it was panicking and felt threatened by the rise of the EFF. In the end, it was a disaster and ended up damaging the DA severely. The campaign was universally denounced.

On the other hand, the ANC and sections of the state were also manufacturing their own smear campaign. The ANC laid a frivolous charge of high treason against EFF leader Julius Malema in the week before the EFF rally for comments he made in an Al Jazeera interview. In the interview Malema made the elementary point that the party would defend itself if the government attacked it or resorts to violence to suppress community protests. Much has been made about Malema’s words about removing the government through a “barrel of a gun,” if the government resorts to violence to suppress peaceful protests. State Security Minister David Mahlobo, who has a history of labeling critics of the government “foreign agents” and “CIA spies,” said that “propaganda for war was not permitted in Section 16(2) of the Constitution.” This is rich, coming from a government which has just been found to have violated the very same constitution by writing illegal reports which were adopted illegally by the ANC majority in parliament in an attempt to legitimize the looting of state resources in the Nkandla corruption scandal.

If the minister is so concerned about “war talk,” he should not have to look very far. This kind of language is very common in the ANC. Recently, ANC Youth League leader Collen Maine said in front of cabinet ministers, leading party members, and the President himself that “those who seek to disrupt the State of the Nation Address must prepare themselves for a civil war . . . The Youth League will physically remove woodworkers from Parliament. We cannot allow Julius Malema and his monkeys to run our country amok and turn this country into a banana republic.”

As far as we know, the minister has never announced criminal charges against Maine.

This campaign is also designed to take the focus away from the storm surrounding President Zuma and the ANC ahead of the local government elections. But there is no such thing as bad publicity. In the end, this too backfired, because the minister and the ANC inadvertently gave publicity to the upcoming EFF event. They ended up creating huge expectations of the EFF rally and interest in what Malema’s response would be. It ended in a farce when the ANC realized this and instructed its leading members just before the weekend to refrain from commenting on the EFF rally.

At the rally itself (which an analyst called an “adrenaline rush”), Malema delivered probably his most powerful political speech ever. In response to the provocations, Malema did not mince his words nor did he pull his punches. He ridiculed the ruling class and savaged them with his customary humor.  He said that the EFF and the ANC were the only two relevant parties, and called the DA and other opposition parties “a waste of time” and “Mickey Mouse” parties.

He lashed out at Minister David Mahlobo, calling him a “small boy” and an “intelligence minister who is not intelligent.” He defended his position in the Al Jazeera interview: “We are not provoking violence. We are the most peaceful organization. We fight in Parliament.  We fight in court . . . we will never start any violence. We will never . . . [aim] guns at innocent people.  But anyone who comes with violence and thinks that they can intimidate with violence—we will defend ourselves . . . We are not scared of war; neither are we scared of violence.”

He dared the minister of police to arrest him: “I only speak the truth to power . . . Since when is the truth treason? Anyone who wants to arrest me here, I am here. You can arrest me now.”

In his own unique way he made an appeal to the rank-and-file soldiers and police, and had a warning for President Zuma not to use the police and soldiers: “I am whispering to you, Zuma, wherever you are, those soldiers are going to turn their guns against you . . . leave office before the soldiers turn against you. The army is EFF.”

And he had a message for the ANC: “We are contesting against the ANC and no one else. Not any other Mickey Mouse party. Bring it on, we are ready for you. We are not scared of you.”

Connecting to the mood

It is this kind of militancy which has contributed to the meteoric rise of the EFF over the last 2 to 3 years. Where many left-wing leaders would take a step back at such provocations by the ruling class, they went on the offensive. Parties like the DA try to scare people with the bogeyman of a “radical” EFF. Actually, what stands behind this is the fear of the masses on the part of the ruling class. What truly scares them is the way the radical nature of the EFF is connecting with the radical mood in society, particularly the youth.

This could be seen at the rally. The mood inside the stadium was electric. Malema’s two-hour address was a rousing and raucous one, which at times felt like a football match. Political analysts and self-styled “analysts” who generally don’t understand the working class expressed the view that Malema has an “ability” to “rouse” people about such things as wanting to halt the construction of bicycle lanes and wanting to build houses where parents could be intimate with each other. In reality there is no secret here. In the month before the manifesto launch the party held more than 200 consultative meetings in which residents expressed their views and demands. The manifesto is basically a summary of the views which were expressed at these meetings.

When he spoke about bicycle lanes, he was attacking the priority that city councils give to the rich residents at the expense of the poor. Similarly, in the demand for parents to be intimate in their own houses, he was actually speaking about overcrowding in the poor areas and the chronic housing backlog which deprives people of their dignity. The “ability” that Malema has is to articulate and express the demands of the masses in a way which is direct and relevant to them. This explains the “connection” which Malema had with the crowd. The more he spoke, the more the crowd felt that it was their own demands which were being expressed.

The roots lie in the rising class struggle

Here we can see once again how the Economic Freedom Fighters are providing an avenue through which some of the pent-up anger, frustrations, and hope of the masses are being channeled. The origins of this are rooted in the rising class struggle of the last period. As the pressures in society were building up, it was reflected more and more in different sections of the ANC-led tripartite alliance. The explosive rise in protests and demonstrations at the local government level in the second decade after 1994 signalled that the masses were not satisfied with the state of affairs.

For the black masses, who have overthrown a vicious dictatorship and who have done so through their own strength, the initial limited success after 1994 in the provision of basic services like water, sanitation, and electricity was not enough. On the contrary, it only emboldened them to press forward other demands. But these demands came face to face with the laws of capitalism. These services have to be paid. Under the so-called “user pay” principle, basic services like electricity and water were cut off to millions of households. The result was a sharp increase in the class struggle.

The masses tried might and main to change the pro-capitalist macroeconomic policies and the direction of the the ANC government. Under immense pressure, a left-wing alliance developed between the ANC Youth League, the SACP, and the COSATU unions. The period between 2005 and 2007 was a classic case of the masses moving through their traditional organizations to change their direction. This culminated in the removing of the capitalist leadership of Thabo Mbeki at the Polokwane conference of the ANC.

But, having removed the Mbeki leadership, the Polokwane coalition soon began to unravel. The masses were still pressing forward their demands. This was reflected in the ANC Youth League, which pushed for the nationalization of the mines. On the other hand, the Zuma leadership came under pressure from the bourgeoisie to put a halt to the leftward drift of the ANC. The SACP failed to push for a socialist program for the new government. Instead, it joined the government, which was adopting capitalist policies, to provide it with a left cover. In true Stalinist fashion, it started attacking the left wing of the alliance. This would eventually lead to the split of COSATU, the breaking up of the leading bodies of the ANC Youth League, and the expulsion of Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu.

But the genie was out of the bottle. After the 2009 national elections, there was an unprecedented rise in strikes and protests. There was a qualitative change in the class struggle. The move by the SACP to join the government on a pro-capitalist basis meant that there was now a massive vacuum to the left of the ANC. It meant that the mass protest movement was now taking place outside of the ruling ANC-led alliance. It was this vacuum which allowed Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu to form the Economic Freedom Fighters.

The two sides and role of Malema

This is the broad outline of the process which led to the formation of the EFF. Julius Malema was part of this entire process. He was present at every turn and participated in all the major battles. But there are two sides to the process which formed his character and molded the role he plays in South African society today. On the one hand is the process which played out inside the ANC, and especially the Youth League. Malema joined the party when he was barely into his teens. He assimilated the internal life of the ANC and all its traditions at an early age. This plays a big part of his current character.

His mentor was Peter Mokaba, the radical former Youth League leader known for his militant and often abrasive language. This militancy and radical nature was always part of the makeup of the Youth League. It played a major role when Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and Anton Lembede turned the ANC towards mass struggle in the late 1940s. But over time the League began to reflect new realities. The founding members of the Youth League rested on the radical petty bourgeois. But under the development of capitalism a strong working class was created in the cities. On the one hand, the harsh realities of repression under apartheid meant that most of the middle-class leaders of the Youth League were either in exile or to jail. This meant that the League began to rest more and more on layers which were closer to the working class. While the radical militancy remained, it was no longer the militancy of the lawyer, teacher, or academic, but that of the  township youth and urban poor. This was the so-called Young Lions generation, which acted as an auxiliary force to the workers in the cities during the revolutionary events in the the late 1980s and early 1990s. They often bore the brunt of the repression of the apartheid regime. It is from the traditions of this layer of hardened revolutionaries from which Malema drew inspiration during his formative years.

On the other hand, Malema participated side by side with the unions against the Mbeki administration during the pre-Polokwane period and the Polokwane conference itself. He also fought side by side with layers of the working class during the explosive rise of strikes which followed the Polokwane conference. He fought for the nationalization of the mines until he was expelled from the ANC, and he was the first major politician to support the miners’ struggle during the period of the Marikana massacre. From this we can see that there are two sides that determine the character of Malema: on the one hand, he is an ANC traditionalist with deep ideological roots still in his former party. On the other hand, he has broken with the ANC under the mass events of the class struggle over the last period, and has been outside of the rot which has since set in in the ANC. He is therefore to be seen as a transitional figure moving between these two positions.

Marxists do not deny the role of individuals in society, but explain their role in the context of the laws governing society. Malema is an important figure in South African society and is bound to play an important role in future. But the most important element in this equation is the rise in the class struggle, and the role of the masses led by the working class. The movement of the workers, with its very militant traditions, will be the deciding factor in the big events which awaits. The role which Malema and the EFF are currently playing is that of providing an outlet through which the masses, especially the youth, are currently moving.

Local elections generally tend not to generate the same level of enthusiasm as national elections. But it is becoming increasingly clear that this year’s local government elections will be radically different from those of the past. Indications are that they could act as a focal point and an avenue through which the masses can move to express their need for change. In this, the Economic Freedom Fighters are playing a very important role. For the first time since the fall of apartheid the masses will have an alternative to the ANC. It is this which makes this year’s elections so important.

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