The EFF and South Africa’s long-standing project of multi-class politics

by Jul 23, 2013All Articles


It’s becoming common knowledge, if not a public secret, that the ANC and the DA, though differing ideologically, at least at the level of rhetoric, are not practically far from each other in terms of their policy recommendations for the country’s economic trajectory. And though they’re always having a go at each other, there’s a growing level of consensus on a few practical issues.

The two have also displayed authoritarian instincts. However, the ANC’s policies do fit in neatly within centre-left politics while the DA’s policies swirl within the centre-right of the political spectrum, albeit the former is compromised by constant corruption and allegations of corruption.

Nevertheless, the SAIRR, through Frans Cronje in November 2011, also argues that ‘in a number of important areas, the policy positions of the DA and the ANC are virtually indistinguishable’: one will remember the DA’s and the ANC’s convergence around the Youth Wage and now the DA’s view that it ‘promises to restore people’s faith in black economic empowerment (BEE)’, further supporting the perception that the DA naively thinks that it can draw electoral mileage from the wager that the party can do everything the ANC does, but better, and with an efficient government.

Adding to this perception, a recent South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) report cautions that the National Development Plan (NDP) is set to collapse; citing that its ‘uncovered a quagmire of ideological dyslexia, economic confusion, and conflicting ideas. The plan is thus set to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions’. The report further goes on to unpack this by saying that the blueprint is ‘non-committal on labour market regulation, proposes increased racial policy requirements for investors, contradicts itself on property rights, and offers no serious reforms on schooling and education policy. In fact, it proposes even more state intervention in the economy, despite all the evidence that such intervention has done more harm than good’.

From the report, it’s quite clear that there’s an ideological crisis within the ANC, to which Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe candidly said ‘the crisis must reach its apex first. I think it will be self-delusion to believe it’s something that can self-correct. It has to get worse first’. Also, the fact that the DA welcomed the NDP, arguing that the blueprint ‘pointed to an emerging consensus at the non-racial, progressive centre of South African politics’, is further proof of the possibility that both the DA and the ANC have run out of radical ideas. Perhaps it’s also proof of both party’s growing disconnect with a large portion of the poor majority.

On the other hand, while the SAIRR approves of COSATU’s diagnosis of the NDP in the main, contrary to COSATU’s recommendations, the report recommends more liberal unbundling such as deregulation of the labour market and abandoning racial policy to boost investment; while this may have traction in reducing poverty, it seems to me that it does not studiously grapple with growing and untenable social and economic inequality in the country. Such recommendations effectively push the country furthermore towards the right of the political spectrum. On this basis, one could argue that the ideological crisis within the ANC, in part its inability to walk a tight social-democratic rope to be precise, has left space open for centre-right politics which has become alluring to many.

The dominance of centre politics as a whole, both egalitarian and reformist, but sometimes conservative, who’s commitment is to secure the best conditions for equality of opportunity and economic development under the rule of law, has not quite thrusted South Africa on a socio-economic path to radically shift colonial-apartheid imbalances. To some extent, because of the past’s unequal offerings and the prevailing political climate during the transition, South Africa post-1994 has understandably been caught up in a multi-class political project: One to appease those that have historically benefitted while simultaneously pleading with the poor majority to wait patiently. However, alternative and radical rumblings are emerging.

The political ‘newbie’, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), have the potential to open up, and deepen democratic space towards a more radical type of politics, shifting South African politics towards the left of centre-left politics. There is a real possibility of stretching the egalitarian clauses contained in the Constitution. Seeing an ideological opening, the EFF might just be at the cusp of something here; the ability to hone in on the racial question while articulating and exposing class disparities, and situating them within a historical context, might just lend them credibility. It seems to me that their dissimilarity with centre-left politics is that EFF has made the elimination of the inequitable distribution of wealth and therefore the historically constituted concentration of capital in the hands of the few, their political program. There is no other such political movement in the country. For now, let’s set aside the personalities involved. It may muddy the waters.

However, this is not new, radical impulses have always existed in the country and have manifested themselves in many ways; form the persistent strikes in De Doorns, the unwavering strikes of the Marikana miners, both alive and departed, the fearless actions of Andries Tatane, and the many land occupations by activists and communities across the country speak to a collective agitation to deepen democracy. Nevertheless, from the ‘roaring 1980’s characterised by community protests to the post-1994 democratic agitations, roughly a 30-year cycle of ebbs and flows, popular demands have always been uneven in their embrace of more democratic opening. Opportunism and criminal elements have at times smuggled themselves onto the agenda. Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu, and a host of other players, are tapping into this terrain so it remains to be seen whether they will bring to the fore a progressive or a reactionary, though revolutionary, potential. Never mind twitter or Facebook following, the question is whether they can hold and sustain the imagination of the historically disadvantaged. Surely, at this point, the judgment is reserved!

Thapelo Tselapedi is a Research and Advocacy Officer at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) but writes this article in his personal capacity.

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