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The EFF Cannot Deliver Radical Change in South Africa

South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters positions itself as a radical party opposed to the ruling government. But its race-centric program overlooks the main source of oppression in postapartheid South Africa: capitalism.

Julius Malema, leader of the the Economic Freedom Fighters, speaks at Uitsig High School in Centurion, South Africa, on June 16, 2021 (Laird Forbes / Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Reading the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) manifesto for South Africa’s last general election in 2019 and watching their online lecture series, one sees a party that offers Pan-African socialism. The thought of Frantz Fanon has converged with Marxist-Leninism to supposedly deliver a revolution deferred twenty-seven years ago.

But postapartheid politicians are infamous for talking left and walking in every other direction. Has the EFF’s professed commitment to socialism remained steadfast? Have their radical ideals been made tangible in the actions of the party throughout its brief history?

An overview of the EFF in the past and present reveals a party bloated by ideological ambiguity and contradiction. Lacking an ideological anchor, they often misdiagnose the source of the country’s major crisis, offering antiquated solutions while also undermining their ability to achieve their stated objectives.

So how is the party of Julius Malema to be understood? 

They can be classified as electoral populists, where populism is a style of politics and set of strategies used to amass power. Because the party is entangled in ideological disorder, issues of race are dangerously misunderstood and exploited for electoral gains or trivial wars of identity. The project of kindling class consciousness and building working-class power from the bottom up is cast aside. And, once again, citizens are left yearning for radical change through a political party that cannot deliver it.

“In South Africa, we are still to deal with class divisions. At the core of our divisions is racism,” Malema has stated.

Populists on both the Right and Left often portray the struggle for political power as one erupting between corrupt elites and oppressed masses. For the EFF, the great divide is between a wealthy white minority and the destitute black masses, whose oppression and exploitation both produces and sustains white economic domination.

Racial inequality is the central factor which fuels the EFF’s program. This presents a problem not only for the EFF but for anyone seeking to diagnose the source of our society’s major ills. No one awake to South Africa’s reality can reasonably deny the disastrous impacts of systemic racism. But as an explanation for all social and economic issues, racism only takes us so far when trying to understand the nature of oppression.

Racism is a fluent and visceral expression of class domination under capitalism. The mass poverty, unemployment, and exploitation long endured by black South Africans is a result of capitalism’s imperatives. These imperatives exclude most from accessing the means for producing wealth by exalting the use of private property for making and hoarding profits. Those locked out of such access become an underclass which must work in life-draining servitude for pitiful wages.

Race as we understand it today is a myth, refined over centuries to justify capitalism’s class divisions. Those branded as inferior or barely human can be treated as expendable tools to amass wealth for the comfort and domination of a “superior” minority. Colonial conquerors and the apartheid regime used the myth of racial identities to legitimize their conquest and accumulation. Because revolution was deferred in 1994, primarily due to the interests of global and local capital, the exploitative structure of apartheid’s economy largely persists into our present.

The EFF’s obsession with racial divisions is misleading. The reclaiming of white wealth will not lead to black liberation. Moreover, the rhetoric of anti-racism can be co-opted by black people hoping to change the racial composition of inequality but not inequality itself. And such ambitions are often expressed as a desire to rid our economy of white supremacy.

But if relations of class domination and exploitation persist, so will destitution for most black people. Remember that a small black elite has found success in the postapartheid era, but those black faces in high places have no interest in advancing liberation. Their class positions — as corporate managers, career politicians, and successful tenderpreneurs — compel them to pursue self-enrichment. And, importantly, to keep intact an economic order which keeps the working class exactly where they are.

The EFF has offered stirring critiques of capitalism. But the future they offer is not socialist. It is not of an economy democratically run by workers or a society held together by communal ownership and collective decision-making, where all contribute and benefit in accordance with their needs and abilities. Rather, the party proposes an economy partly managed by the state “on behalf” of citizens, with some sectors still under the reins of private interests.

Can this top-down, state-led approach to transforming the economy be trusted? In other words, is the party of Julius Malema truly fighting for the working class?

A concerning and constant criticism of the EFF is the absence of a democratic culture within the party. Old and current members have revealed how the organization shuts down criticism or constructive dissent, preferring loyalty to the thinking of the executive leadership. One also can’t overlook the intense adoration for commander in chief Julius Malema within the party. This adoration can be fierce — to the point that members defend some of Malema’s disturbing remarks or harass those (particularly journalists) who criticize their leader.

This lack of a democratic culture is another reason for the EFF’s ideological confusion. Stifling criticism and centering a party around its top brass of leadership limits the capacity for new ideas or new strategies for advancing its objectives. This erases the possibility of moving beyond its contradictions. It may also produce a leadership that evades accountability while treating its members as instruments for its political ambitions.

It’s hard to imagine that a party so presently hostile to a democratic culture could suddenly embrace it once in executive power, or that it could be democratic in its management of the state and national resources.

It is the working class which actually produces society’s wealth. If it becomes aware of its status and is mobilized, it can threaten the power of capital using its immense leverage. Historically, this has made it a pivotal force for radical change. Although the EFF is not totally distanced from the working class (many of its members are poor and working class), its relationship is not one of steadfast solidarity. The party’s engagement with this grouping is largely opportunistic, sporadic, and guided by authoritarian impulses. Therefore, the party is unlikely to pose a significant threat to capital’s political power or economic might.

Grassroots movements across the country, such as the Amadiba Crisis Committee and Abahlali baseMjondolo, have courageously fought and won valuable victories over mass evictions, labor disputes, municipal corruption, xenophobia, and food security. But the EFF’s interaction with these progressive agents has been lackluster at best. It has often been absent in the struggles of rural women against mining industries or in the fights of the poor against violent evictions. Some grassroots movements have even condemned the EFF as opportunists, rejecting the party with fierce contempt.

Additionally, no close ties or tangible solidarity exist between the EFF and the country’s various unions. The Workers and Socialist Party has previously criticized the red berets for their previous attempts to take over the union, as well as for attempts by the EFF to silence and dismiss criticism during internal leadership meetings.

If the EFF were seriously pursuing socialism, they would understand that it cannot be won through the ballot box alone. Outside government, there exist zones of power — within the media, the state, the education system, and, of course, the private sector — that function to maintain the supremacy of capital alongside the political order which sustains it. To combat these concentrations of power, a working-class movement is needed to consistently exert pressure for radical change, challenge dominant ideologies, and combat the inevitable state violence that will result from such mass mobilization.

Without such a sustained movement, any radical party will not be able to defend itself against an onslaught of opposition from those eager to preserve the status quo. Almost a decade since its creation, the EFF is not firmly rooted in the working class, therefore undermining its own proclaimed goals.

The EFF is neither fascist nor legitimately leftist. Devoid of ideological clarity, mostly disengaged from the working class, and reluctant to embrace democracy within the party, they are bound to a populism that can invite great attention and perhaps gain them some electoral advances. But, ultimately, they will not be an avenue for radical change.