Saturday, 11 April 2015

When Julius speaks: EFF leader on Race, Politics and Everything.

On Monday 30 March, the EFF leader Julius Malema held a gathering of foreign correspondents captive – with his words – as he outlined his party’s policies, answered questions – and left not a few questions still unanswered. J. BROOKS SPECTOR was there to watch the show.

In the past few years there have been numerous moments, too many to count at current rates, when Economic Freedom Front founder-leader Julius Malema has expounded on his political ideas and plans for South Africa. Rather more rarely, however, has he opened up quite so much about what is behind his political agenda – and about how he thinks of the country’s economy. A meeting with many of the South Africa-based foreign correspondents (save for those off in Nigeria watching those developments) was one of those times – especially since it was pitched as a way to launch his thoughts out onto the global discussion about South Africa’s future – and his likely place in it.
Photo: Julius Malema in Bloemfoentein, EFF conference, 14 december 2014. (Greg Nicolson)
Oddly, his pronouncements may have been slightly overshadowed by other breaking events, even beyond the Nigerian election. Among others there was comedian Trevor Noah’s selection to succeed Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, the America-based satirical news show seen around the world; there has been the astonishing end of Zwelinzima Vavi’s career in Cosatu and the possible beginnings of another one; there have been the on-going shenanigans in various state offices; and, of course, there is the continuing meltdown of what’s left of the state electrical power generator, Eskom, even without any nuclear reactors ordered on an urgent basis from Russia.

Regardless, it is crucial to look closely at Malema’s views in some detail, if for no other reason than that he – and his ideas – are, increasingly, positioned to be a key, perhaps even the central element in the evolving national debate over the shape of the country’s economic future. Just as certainly, if their effect on the past several months of parliamentary sessions is any indication, they have put a real oar in the waters of government business as usual as well. Or, as Malema himself said – with something approaching a twinkle (or a glint) in his eye – he and his colleagues have made the parliamentary television channel “must see TV.” No matter which way things go, going forward it is going to be a wild ride with Julius Malema contending for the driver’s seat.

If one goes back to the EFF’s actual political manifesto – the new party’s founding document and its first political breaths - it makes much of being situated what it has called, courtesy of what its chief theorist, Floyd Shivambu, would probably have identified as Marxist-Leninist-Fanonian thought and analysis. As the manifesto does say, “The EFF is a radical, leftist, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movement with an internationalist outlook anchored by popular grassroots formations and struggles. The EFF will be the vanguard of community and workers’ struggles and will always be on the side of the people. The EFF will, with determination and consistency, associate with the protest movement in South Africa and will also join in struggles that defy unjust laws.

“The EFF takes lessons from the notation that ‘political power without economic emancipation is meaningless’. The movement is inspired by ideals that promote the practice of organic forms of political leadership, which appreciate that political leadership at whatever level is service, not an opportunity for self-enrichment and self-gratification.

“The EFF draws inspiration from the broad Marxist-Leninist tradition and Fanonian schools of thought in their analyses of the state, imperialism, culture and class contradictions in every society. Through organic engagement and a constant relationship with the masses, Economic Freedom Fighters provide clear and cogent alternatives to the current neo-colonial economic system, which in many countries keep the oppressed under colonial domination and subject to imperialist exploitation.”

That kind of thing seems perfect for the professors, would-be young professionals (surprisingly like the students at the Vaal University of Technology, who have just elected the EFF to a big majority in their Students Representative Council), and a lumpen proletariat eager to embrace a theoretical basis for their new-found emotional investment in the EFF (after disappointments with so many earlier movements of the left). However, if one listens to the EFF leader himself, the real kernel of his appeal comes in at a more basic formulation: Life in South Africa has been unfair to you, history made it that way and the politicians now on top have done nothing – zilch, zip, nada – to change things for anyone but themselves. (Of course, another chant – “Bread! Peace! Land!” – caught another popular wave, some years back, in another increasingly weary nation, ground down by war, poverty and desperation.)

The Malema rhetorical approach simultaneously offers somewhat two different appeals. They are aimed at divergent targets, but they can come together with mesmerising effect.

On the one hand, he appeals to a class of rural (and some nostalgic rural wannabe) supporters. These would be current or potential EFF voters with a strong sentimental attachment to the idea of gaining access to land. And this language represents a real, visceral recognition of their current landlessness and how they came to be that way. Or in simpler language, perhaps: Somebody took it from you, and now you need to get it returned.

Or, as the EFF leader argued, land ownership represents the “alpha and omega” of the EFF’s pitch – and this may have been a key part of how his party suddenly came from nowhere to 6% of the voters’ choices in last year’s election. As Malema argued, “Under an EFF government, land will be nationalised and both so-called private and public and residential land, it will all be under the state ownership. And all of us will have to apply for permission to use that land.” That statement, interestingly, doesn’t quite accord with his pledge to give land to the landless, but that is a seeming contradiction he and his party will have to work themselves out in the future when they are pushed to explain how this squaring of the circle will work in practice – or how nationalisation will truly answer that land hunger he wants to address.

In his encounter with the international media, Malema stated that foreigners would not be allowed to hold agricultural land. In saying this, he provided a vivid word picture describing all those rich Middle Easterners who are building up vast rural estates for recreation and game farming, as they jet in for weekend braais and parties. This while the people of that area only get to look in through the fences at yet more alienated land. Shades of the heroine of The Little Match Girl or, perhaps, of the victims of Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal remark about bread and cake. Oh, and just by the way, Malema insisted that it was his party and not the ANC that had come up with the idea of barring foreigners from holding agricultural land. By contrast, the majority party is the real Johnny-come-lately on this proposal, following his lead. Gotcha.

Land takes on nearly mystical textures when Malema speaks of it. One can almost see his eyes surveying the veld as he speaks, watching sturdy yeomen farmers tending their crops and the herds in his mind’s eye. It is almost as if the very ownership of a piece of it will restore dignity, generate prosperity, and ensure success for the future – but without a real recognition farming is such a fraught enterprise that the numbers of commercial farmers in South Africa continues to fall and more and more people move off the land to the cities of the country, turning South Africa into an increasingly urban, not rural human landscape.

The challenge is that while his rhetoric speaks of white-held land and white-held farms and its redistribution, the larger implied program of action would, if actually accomplished across the board, encompass traditionally held and government-owned land, as well as land already held by black farmers. Doing all this would almost certainly generate fundamental revolutions in the economic, political and social fabric of South Africa’s rural society, including elimination of those long-held rights of chiefs and their agents to allocate land to individuals, based on their own views about loyalties and rewards. (Since so much of the Jacob Zuma version of the ANC is increasingly dependent on rural votes and chiefly influence, is this a subliminal way of attaching that very set of relationships and voter loyalties?)

With Malema’s policy to abolish individual land tenure entirely and have individuals apply directly to a government agency for the use of land, as long as they intended to farm it, a whole new set of problems may arise as well. The EFF leader acknowledged in his remarks that most black farmers now have neither the agronomy skills nor the equipment to successfully carry out sophisticated 21st century farming. As a result, these proposals would entail an entire new bureaucratic establishment to provide tools, seeds, crop management advice and marketing skills, let alone all the mechanised equipment that will be needed.

But, if no one owns the land individually, it becomes unclear who would be responsible for its long-term management and conservation, a question the Malema agenda seems to elide around. Precisely where this broad nationalisation position derives from remains unclear, especially since the Freedom Charter spoke to land ownership by those who farmed it, and the EFF leader says he venerates that document and its history. In fact, he argued that it is the EFF that is the true bearer of its legacy, rather than the ANC, a group he charged that has gone seriously off course by virtue of all its various neo-liberal development plans since 1996.

The other half of the EFF appeal aims at the mostly urban and peri-urban unskilled, under-skilled, and undereducated jobless, as well as those who may have achieved a meagre toehold in the wage economy. For them, the redistribution of the nation’s wealth stands as the key to the potential progress. And the EFF prescription comes in part through the nationalisation of the country’s mines, monopolies and banks, just as it says it should in The Freedom Charter.

Current investors, many potential foreign (and domestic) investors, academic and media critics, most other political party leaders, and a majority of economists would disagree with that policy. Nevertheless, such a pledge continues to resonate with many who believe the governing party has shrugged off the economic goals it came into power with, or, that even if the ANC still believes in them, they have been unable to make any real headway since they came into power two decades ago.

The EFF manifesto argues,

“Despite all these terrible conditions and realities, the post-1994 government consistently failed to define what really constitutes development. Since 1994, South Africa has misconstrued development as simply meaning the provision of free services such as houses, education, healthcare, social grants, and the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). While these social-welfare aspects are vital in South Africa, they do not constitute the core of development realised by all industrialised and developed nations in the world, particularly those that realised massive economic development from the mid-20th century onwards, such as Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. These also do not reflect the core of economic development under way in Brazil, India and China. The common and irreplaceable feature of these developed and developing economies has been state-aided industrialisation, particularly of tradable sectors in manufacturing and industrialisation, i.e. the development of productive forces. This is usually buttressed by salient, yet subtle, import substitution through the protection of infant industries, tariffs, and other measures, including the insulation of agriculture and food production.

“If the realisation and attainment of these important service-delivery measures is real development, then countries such as Cuba, with unparalleled access to healthcare, education, social welfare services, low infant mortality rates and a longer life expectancy, would be the most developed territories in the world. Cuba does not fall in the category of developed nations because the correct understanding of development, realised in the 20th-century development of Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Finland, and Taiwan is about developing manufacturing industries for domestic and global consumption. South Africa should, concurrent with the provision of essential services, pursue this kind of economic development to create sustainable jobs.”

The irony in this is Malema’s EFF is extolling the development virtues of a collection of uber-capitalist nations, the little tigers/dragons of East and Southeast Asia, as well as China, that has now gone well down the path to be at least as capitalist-oriented as most western nations, albeit with fewer political freedoms – rather than Cuba (or Venezuela for that matter). A further irony is that a program of nationalisation as extolled by the EFF would almost certainly drive away the very kind of investors that have been central to such national development trajectories across the Asian map, and that has now, finally, begun to be realised in India as well. Left undetermined in the EFF manifesto or in its leader’s recent remarks is a clear path of how to generate the investment needed to create the jobs that can provide pathways out of poverty for the EFF’s most likely supporters.

Of course Malema spent much of his energy disparaging the corruption of high office and high officials, pre-eminently President Jacob Zuma and his coterie. In doing this, he argued that this corruption is actually at the root of so many of the nation’s present travails – ranging from the problems at Eskom to the slide of the country’s currency against the dollar.

“These issues we’re talking about which you want us to pay attention to, they happen as a result of the big elephant in the room, which is called the president. Because this corrupt thief is the one that tampers with every single institution of the state.”

When he was asked about the ideas, books and people that have influenced him outside of politics, he at first seemed almost flummoxed by such a question, insisting he has no time for anyone not involved in politics or living a political life. Eventually he came around to speaking about his newfound joys in family life, the importance of a new exercise routine - and his love of being an amateur DJ. For this he cited a love for house music, deep house music and, naturally, kwaito – pointing to the latter’s origins as a genuine music of the people.

As a kind of summing up, Julius Malema argued, “The younger ‘Juju’ in the ANC was a very, very militant one, and that’s what we like about him. And all the youth must be radical, because politics and revolution is an activity of the youth. There’s no apology about it. Because when you are young, you are a rough diamond, and you are going through a process of being polished into a proper shining diamond.”

Of course, performing a sustained verbal pirouette for a crowd of cynical foreign journalists is a very different thing than revving up a stadium crowd of people thoroughly in sync with an EFF perspective (or him with theirs, perhaps appropriately put), and who are prepared to follow the appeals of his rhetoric right to the core of the symbolic content they hold in common. But, and here’s the thing, when he finally figures out just how to roll out those perfect sound bites for the global audience just as well as he already does his thing in a local football stadium, such a political performance will be something astonishing to watch. DM
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