In geographer Gillian Hart’s excellent Rethinking the South African Crisis, she points to a rather curious phenomenon as part of her engagement with the figure of one Julius Malema and the ‘populist’ turn he represents. She notes that for a change the far left and liberal right’s politics converge in the sense that they both share the same critique of the ex-Youth League president and current commander-in-chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

It is not often that analysts of such diametrically opposed ideological tastes as Terry Bell and Gareth van Onselen agree, one being a left-leaning labour analyst and the other being a die-hard freemarket liberal, but they do in the case of Malema. Both Bell and van Onselen have made the case that Malema and the politics he espouses can be broadly categorised as ‘fascist’ or ‘fascistic’ in character. Mamphela Ramphele went as far as to compare Malema to Hitler in a public statement, a sure-fire way to justify ignoring both the tone, form and content of an opponent’s politics.

Their argument can be boiled down to this: The composition of social forces assembled behind Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters is a mix of ‘lumpen’ or young unemployed voters. These ‘born frees are attracted to his militant rhetoric amidst a hopeless situation’. In effect both the images of masculinity and militarism are summoned in both the aesthetic and rhetorical strategies utilized by Malema.

Secondly the contention is that the calls for nationalization and other perceived ‘radicalism’ made by the EFF represent in effect the demands of a certain fraction of the emergent BEE-linked bourgeoisie, who want a bail out after their mining ventures failed miserably. Together they fit a definition of fascism as an alliance between the lumpen proletariat and an alienated faction of the bourgeoisie.

Some also add that the EFF’s position on Mugabe and Zimbabwe also disqualifies them from being ‘on the left’. The EFF professes open support for Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and in particular their land-reform program. One of the central items of the EFF’s agenda being the expropriation of land without compensation and the symbolism of land occupations, given the history of dispossession in South Africa, making such open support for Mugabe and Zanu-PF is unsurprising.

Leaving aside the complexities of Zimbabwean politics, one can hardly argue that the EFF is not ‘left’ because it supports a position they disagree with. Most of these people would hardly deny the late Hugo Chávez the right to be left — despite the fact he was an open supporter of Mugabe. The more serious case to answer is the ‘composition’ argument.

There is not a single historical example or paradigm of a fascist movement or party describing itself as ‘Marxist-Leninist-Fanonian’. A movement which has set out a manifesto closer to an old Trotskyist transitional programme, instead of barely coherent ramblings about national purity or vast international Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracies. In describing the above as Fascistic one essentially either claims that all this Marxist talk is part of a conspiracy to hide the fascistic tendencies of the EFF or one ignores all the written statements of the EFF altogether.

Fascism is a notoriously difficult concept to define and through frequent misuse its power and meaning has dwindled. It is often used to slander one’s political opponents rather than in a precise analytical fashion, from the Republican party labeling Barack Obama as akin to Hitler or those on the liberal left describing George Bush’s republican party as fascist.

The definition of fascism used to attack the EFF emerges out of debates on the origin of fascism in Europe, but whether this definition can be applied in a postcolonial context is not at all dealt with in these critiques of the EFF.

This critique doesn’t engage whether the models or definition of fascism, which emerged from a specifically European historical context, can be applied elsewhere in a country like post-apartheid South Africa – which doesn’t resemble the Weimar Republic or pre-Mussolini Italy, in which fascism arose in the context of the ruling classes’ fear of a strong international communist movement, or to put down a militant trade union movement after a devastating war.

Furthermore it makes no attempt to grapple with the complexities and nuances of South African nationalism or postcolonial nationalism in general, in which a number of movements and leaders from elements of Zanu-PF to Sankara in Burkina Faso have championed very similar programmes and used very similar rhetoric to Malema and the EFF. Surely such movements represent a paradigm closer to the EFF rather than copying and pasting what is already a loosely defined concept in the current South African political context?

There is hardly an established historical paradigm of fascism emerging in a post-colonial context from a ‘radical’ split from the ruling nationalist party. The closest to a ‘fascistic’ split one can locate is of a politics based on ethnic or religious identity. EFF clearly doesn’t fit into that paradigm with its appeals to pan-Africanism, and loosely speaking taking up the BC definition of black as an identity which moves beyond ethnicity.

The liberal right position makes sense; of course, liberals would want to delegitimize all left forces that could potentially either channel political energy away from certain liberal civil society projects or that great liberal party known as the DA. Van Onselen, himself an ex-DA official, has a vested stake in attempting to portray the EFF as a potentially murderous and reactionary force, preventing the DA from leaking actual or potential voters to the EFF.

The far left position also seeks to delegitimize the EFF, but for what reason? It is due to either a fear of having the ‘radical space’ in the South African political scene seized by a collective of corrupt opportunists or, less charitably, a fear of the left space that certain careerists on the left have sought to monopolize on their being seized by a group of upstarts.

The worst thing about this argument is that it labels the dispossessed black unemployed youth – or in other words those who have been worse affected by South Africa’s neoliberal trajectory – as an essentially reactionary social bloc that is full of ‘fascistic tendencies’ or as lumpen, surplus or criminal in nature. This position is often racialized to the extent that it reads as the middle-class terror of the ungovernable, unwashed and uncouth young black masses demanding such things as the nationalization of key industries, radical land reform and ‘economic freedom’. All things which, it should be noted, the left traditionally supports. One would also think that the left views this grouping as a potential base rather than a threat.

The significance of EFF is that it marks a break from the current political consensus, both in terms of our established political parties and the lobbying and legalistic strategies currently pervasive through ‘civil society’, which it has with such venomous opposition. The EFF marks a break with the established consensus because they explicitly reject the rhetoric of ‘social cohesion’; they reject the line that we need a social compact based on wage suppression to ward off a forthcoming apocalypse and the panacea of Foreign Direct Investment as the solution to our economic woes.

Whatever the case, to claim the EFF is not left and is some sort of proto-fascist grouping doesn’t stand up to any analytic scrutiny. This doesn’t mean that it should be immune from criticism from the left; there are a number of issues one could call the EFF out on ranging from its leaders’ less than commendable stance on women’s rights in the past to the questionable finances of its other leaders and rather xenophobic comments directed towards those of Indian descent. This does not mean that the EFF cannot be another form of left sounding; opportunism, bad political choices and corruption are by no means the monopoly of the right and centre. Those on the left can also make mistakes and be in politics for less than commendable reasons, but these criticisms do not undermine the significance of the EFF as a whole.

In essence, they mark a break with the fuzzy hangover of sentiment emanating from what’s left of the rainbow nation nationalism of times past. They claim to be the authentic representatives of the ‘radical Freedom Charter’ rather than the current dominant liberal reading – a Freedom Charter which outlays the beginnings of a socialistic or statist economic program.

The other strength (and potential weakness) of the EFF is that they mark a reconstitution of the two dominant black political traditions on the left in South Africa – namely Chartism and Black Consciousness. They have successfully managed to incorporate both BC and Chartists under the same political roof, potentially opening up the space for a birth of a new form of black radical politics. Whether or not they can succeed in keeping this alliance together after next year’s elections remains to be seen and perhaps marks the biggest internal political challenge for the movement.

It is this that has enabled EFF to find traction amongst a not insignificant segment of the population. Exactly how much traction they have remains to be seen. It is also because of this traction that the independent left will have to drop their own sectarianism and seriously engage with the EFF and its members as fellow travelers rather than unwelcome intruders. Whether it is to point out the limitations of the EFF or to attempt to influence their political line, such engagement should be done in a comradely fashion rather than joining the liberal right in attempting to delegitimize the EFF as a political project.

* This is an edited version of an article that appears in the latest issue of Amandla! Magazine.

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Benjamin Fogel

Benjamin Fogel is the assistant editor of Amandla Magazine. Currently based in Cape Town, he is a journalist with a particular interest in labour and political journalism. You can follow him on Twitter: @BenjaminFogel.

4 thoughts on “Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters and the South African Left

  1. Ben, the legitimacy of the criticism of their printed policies aside, I think the left is understandably appalled by the blatant opportunism of the EFF’s leaders – a strong signal of their commitment to just governance whatever their policies. In a country in which the ANC has let us down badly in frequently putting party maneuvering ahead of delivery, the EFF doesn’t just represent more of the same, it appears to be a streamlined version of the kind of governance that many of us, on the left and right, have come to hate.

    Will their policies benefit the majority of hopeless youths who follow them? Or would their leadership entrench a patronage-based system even deeper?

  2. Thank you, Benjamin, for a more thoughtful analysis of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Why progressive people condemn Julius Malema (EFF) more loudly than Jacob Zuma (ANC) has always confused me. I think you point at useful reasons though when you suggest that progressives favor the “rhetoric of social cohesion” through policies that engage the growing gap between rich and poor, and keep economic structures in place that disable a new black radical politics.

  3. I direct your attention to the book “Being a Character: Psychoanalysis and Self Experience” by Christopher Bollas. Chapter 9: “The Fascist state of mind.” Here Bollas engages, not so much with the politico-ideological definition and expression of Fascism, but rather what the mind does, individually and collectively. The mind evacuates complexity. Doubt, uncertainty and self-examination is viewed as weakness. This must be expelled to maintain ideological certainty. A process that defines much of the SA narrative I think.

  4. Granted that, as Mr. Fogel points out, “Fascism is a notoriously difficult concept to define. . . often used to slander one’s political opponents rather than in a precise analytical fashion,” one essential characteristic seems to be the habit of applying racial, ethnic, or religious categories to misidentify economic adversaries. Although their leaders’ anti-Asian gestures have been ugly, claiming that the path of xenophobia must be taken by the EFF’s young, black, unemployed followers assumes the futility of engaging them. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and one that is both dangerous and unjust. South Africa’s left will weaken itself by marginalizing a natural constituency that deserves persuasion, not dismissal.

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