The EFF: shallow populists or the revolutionaries South Africa needs?

by Oct 26, 2023Amandla 89, Article

On 29th July 2023, tens of thousands gathered at FNB stadium to celebrate the Economic Freedom Fighters’ 10th anniversary. Whether you support the EFF or not, the rally reminded South Africans that the party is far from an insignificant player in electoral politics.

ON 29TH JULY 2023, TENS of thousands gathered at FNB stadium to celebrate the Economic Freedom Fighters’ 10th anniversary. Struggle songs soared into the air as the 95,000-seater stadium was filled to capacity and soaked in the vibrant red colours embraced by emancipatory organisations throughout modern history.

Whether you support the EFF or not, the rally reminded South Africans that the party is far from an insignificant player in electoral politics. As the country is submerged in multiple crises, the 2024 general elections stand to be a pivotal moment in the country’s post-apartheid history. It is in this context that the EFF’s politics require examination.

Being committed to confronting South Africa’s crises and enacting transformative change requires us to go beyond just imagining alternative ways of organising society. We have to devise strategies on how such change can be realistically achieved. South Africa’s working class, poor and financially precarious majority are under constant assault. Political elites devour state resources, and monetary policies deepen debt, and the economy excludes as much it exploits. Life for the vast majority is tainted by pain, desperation and despair.

It is within these unstable and grim times that we must ask if there is a political force (e.g. movement, organisation, political party) that can be a vehicle through which transformative change is achieved. And is the EFF potentially such a force?

This question cannot be thoroughly explored and answered in one article. To sharpen our focus, the EFF’s conception of political struggle what is wrong with society and how it can be changed will be the priority of this critique.

The roots of inequality

A central issue which propels the EFF is the pursuit and realisation of economic freedom. Despite continuous controversy, the party remains compelling to many because it acknowledges that the absence of economic freedom severely constrains political freedom. This dilemma was effectively expressed by author and activist Angela Davis: “The idea of freedom is inspiring. But what does it mean? If you are free in the political sense but have no food, what’s that? The freedom to starve?”. The hollow content of political freedom, in the absence of economic power or agency, is a pivotal source of conflict in the post-apartheid era. But where the EFF flounders is in its perspective on what produces and sustains this contradiction.

Although constantly utilising the rhetoric and theory of Karl Marx or Frantz Fanon, the EFF sees the fundamental political struggle in the country as one between a subjugated black majority and white private-sector elites that use ruling party puppets to maintain white economic supremacy. Their founding manifesto states, “In short, the black majority, whatever their class location, are integrated into the mainstream of the economy in a subservient position relative to white people”.

In a 2018 press conference, Julius Malema argued that, “In South Africa, we are still to deal with class divisions. At the core of our divisions is racism”. And in a 2015 interview he remarked, “We are waging a war against white monopoly capital”.

Racism certainly remains a common aspect of life in South Africa, and the legacies of apartheid and colonial conquest continue to undermine the possibility of achieving transformative change. But to think the primary obstacle to this objective is white supremacy is not only inaccurate but also strategically short-sighted. Racial inequality is but one dimension of post-apartheid injustice.

The 2018 World Inequality Report revealed that “Rising black per capita incomes over the past three decades have narrowed the interracial income gap, although increasing inequality within the black and Asian/Indian population seems to have prevented any decline in total inequality”. This is a remarkable development.

It means that inequality within the black population has expanded, while inequality between races has gradually narrowed. Moreover, it is the inequality within racial groups that contributes to overall inequality, rather than inequality between racial groups. The EFF’s current understanding of inequality does not help us uncover its present and fluctuating dynamics. To understand, confront and overcome inequality, we must develop an understanding of capitalism.

In 1994, apartheid died but capitalism lived on and evolved. The arrival of democracy coincided with the embrace of neoliberalism by the African National Congress and South Africa’s immersion into the global capitalist economy. Let us not forget that capitalism is “An economic and social system in which owners of capital appropriate the surplus product generated by the direct producers (workers), leading to the accumulation of capital investment and the amassing of wealth for capitalists”.

The primary division and inequality in post-apartheid South Africa is between those who work to produce the economy’s wealth and those who not only own the means of economic production but who have legal ownership over the fruits of economic production. The state’s function within neoliberal capitalism is to use its capacity and authority to forge an economy and political order which “re-establishes the conditions for capital accumulation and restores the power of economic elites”.

Racism should be condemned and eradicated, but it is not a passion for racial discrimination which motivates captains of the private sector. It is the pursuit of profits in the context of domestic and international competition.

Eskom’s unbundling and the gradual creation of a competitive energy market are driven by the interest to accumulate in the energy sector. Treasury’s budget cuts and interest hikes are enacted in the interest of weakening the public sector, appeasing creditors and further opening the door for accumulation through public-private partnerships. The private sector’s call for more “labour market flexibility” is made in the interest of decreasing the cost of labour and ensuring workers are vulnerable to the needs of their employers.

The courageous workers murdered at Marikana were not killed because of their black identity, although the way in which racism dehumanizes black people certainly numbs the empathetic capacities of the police. Those men were murdered because under capitalism a major function of the police is to protect private property and suppress political action that threatens the ability of capitalists to accumulate. If capitalists cannot accumulate wealth, they cannot amass and sustain their political power over society.

Racial discrimination, at universities, workplaces or boardrooms, is one of the barriers to some South Africans being able to access valuable opportunities. And it can have a traumatic impact on one’s sense of dignity and self-worth. But it is not the fundamental mechanism that sustains economic exploitation or political oppression. Millions are poor, unemployed and precarious because the commanding heights of the economy remain in the hands of a few. Those economic elites not only appropriate a vast amount of wealth for themselves; they also make sure the economy and the political order it produces satisfy their interest in accumulation.

The phenomenon of systemic corruption is commonly perceived solely as a moral failure within political leadership. But it cannot be properly comprehended outside the context of how South Africa’s brand of neoliberalism has failed to inclusively grow the economy, while still maintaining barriers to access for emergent black industrialists and capitalists.

Why is the notion that racial discrimination is the primary source of inequality and poverty strategically bad for the EFF? It misdirects the focus of the EFF’s agitation and political actions. Rather than aiming to change the structure of the economy, which produces numerous forms of socio-economic injustice and crisis, the EFF’s energy is spent rebuking the racial makeup of ruling elites.

Race and class: the connection and difference

Reducing the roots of socio-economic injustice to racial discrimination, or maintaining that it is a white economic elite which sabotages achieving transformative change, is not an outlook exclusive to the EFF. It springs from a conceptual confusion that has become prevalent within progressive politics.

It is the inequality within racial groups that contributes to overall inequality, rather than inequality between racial groups. To understand, confront and overcome inequality, we must develop an understanding of capitalism.

Although intricately connected, especially in a country like South Africa, race and class are two different phenomena. When Marxists refer to class, they are not just describing one’s income level or the kind of job you may do. Class describes social relations. Two crucial relationships define the working class under capitalism: their relationship to the economy, as those who do not own productive private property or large sums of capital; and their relationship to employers (i.e capitalists), who they depend on for their livelihood through a wage that will give them access to goods and services in the market. It is these relations which necessitate and sustain economic exploitation, while also preserving a suffocating dependency on capitalists.

Sociologist Bernard Magubane correctly noted that “The concept of class is useful, not because it is ‘true’, but because it correctly identifies the basis of exploitation in capitalist society; it directs our inquiry to the fundamentals of racism as an instrument for extracting surplus value from the labourer and keeping the working people divided”.

From a Marxist point of view, race is an ideological construction, and the development of race as an ideology has resulted in most of us being subjected to racial classification. There is no empirical evidence that humans exist as different biological races, with fundamentally different intellectual or psychological capacities or essences depending on whether they are Black, Coloured, White or Indian. Race is not objectively real (like the sun or the desk in front of me); it is a potent social reality birthed and sustained by human action.

In South Africa, race was constructed at first to serve the interests of colonial conquest and primitive capital accumulation. To justify and legitimise the dispossession of land and the economic exploitation of Africans, the mythical inferiority and superiority of superficially different humans had to be legally enshrined, politically enforced and socially practised.

European elites did not conduct conquest in Southern Africa to prove their superiority or quench some innate appetite for cruelty. Rather, it was material interests such as acquiring livestock, fertile land, cheap labour and eventually mineral resources that catapulted colonial conquest.

By the time of Afrikaaner nationalism’s ascent into the chambers of executive power in 1948, race had a social reality that permeated life in South Africa. Submerged in the myth of their own superiority, the architects of apartheid aimed to wield state power to shield the Afrikaaner community from the destabilising shockwaves unleashed by global capitalism in the preceding decades of the 20th century. To achieve this aim required cheap African labour readily available for capitalists and white consumers. The ideology of white supremacy had to become dominant, as racialisation worked to justify the servitude, exploitation and oppression of millions.

Race as an ideological construction, and racism as a social practice, persist after apartheid because capitalism’s relations of domination, dispossession and labour division have continued into the present. Mass unemployment, precarious and exploitative labour and spatial inequality reinforce the mythologies of race. They would have us incorrectly believe that some are indeed born better than others. Or that those who cannot break free from the heavy chains of poverty fail to do so because their inherent qualities limit their chances for upward mobility.

It has not been in the interests of capitalists to invest in the socio-economic development of South Africa’s majority since 1994. Moreover, some of those who have sat at the commanding heights of the ANC have found prosperity and power under rainbow neoliberalism. Rather than thinking of the ANC’s neoliberal compromises and concessions as a racial betrayal, it is more enlightening and useful to conceive of the party’s policy trajectory as a Faustian pact with domestic and international capitalism.

A final and fatal flaw with the EFF’s racial reductionism is in how it conflates racial identity with political interest. Simply put, a black supermarket teller may share a racial identity, cultural heritage and language with a black CEO. But these shared social experiences do not erase an important reality: the political interests of a black capitalist will not only be different to that of a black worker, their interests will collide and conflict, simply because the black CEO needs labour that is cheap and politically docile. Conversely, a black worker cannot achieve economic agency, greater political freedom and social well- being if their employer retains a dominant relation of power over them.

Confusing racial identity with political interests can result, and has resulted, in progressives confusing their enemies with their comrades comrades who are needed to build relationships of solidarity in order to take effective transformative political action.

What is the future of the EFF?

I argue now, as I did in an article nearly three years ago, that the party suffers from unsustainable ideological contradictions which limit its potential to be a vehicle for potent class struggle.

Beyond its confusing positions on race and class, the party still lacks an internal culture of democracy and has a severely narrow conception of economic and political democratisation. However, the EFF has still managed to animate the radical imaginations of millions and brought a left-leaning perspective to issues such as land redistribution, outsourcing, privatization and mass joblessness.

I contend that if the EFF can grow beyond its current leadership, which has maintained dictatorial control over the party since 2013, it has the potential to be the formation that the working class, poor, financially precarious and unemployed have been waiting for. And if it can embrace an accurate view of class, race and capitalism’s internal dynamics, perhaps the organisation can be one of the forces which trigger the transformative class warfare post-apartheid South Africa so desperately needs.

Andile Zulu is a political writer and Energy Democracy Officer at the AIDC. 


The courageous workers murdered at Marikana were not killed because of their black identity… Those men were murdered because under capitalism a major function of the police is to protect private property and suppress political action that threatens the ability of capitalists to accumulate.

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