The EFF and the politics of theatre

Phillip Dexter say the Fighters exist as an opposition because of the cyclical factionalism that is a feature of ANC political life

The Theatre of Politics and the Politics of Theatre: "Oppositionism" in the NDR

Recent commentaries on the EFF and its political actions have focused on issues such as whether the EFF should be allowed to wear overalls in parliament and the legislatures. This seems to be a trivialization of politics. While our country faces the huge challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment and how these affect South Africans in terms of race, class, gender, age and disability, the fixation on attire seems to be a distraction. While the debate about what the rules of our various legislatures are not unimportant, the real issue is whether or not critique the EFF gives of the ANC is relevant or correct in part, or as a whole.

Will the policies the EFF claims it is proposing address the challenges we face as a country, better or faster and more sustainably than the ANC's NDP? While the EFF has some relevance because of the manner of and reasons for it's genesis, like similar breakaways from the ANC, it is doomed to be a marginal political formation precisely because its critique is emotional and unscientific and its proposals superficial. It exists as an opposition because of the cyclical factionalism that is a feature of ANC political life and not because of an ideological break or rupture in the ruling party.

Reading the speeches, articles, comments and the statements by the EFF is often an amusing and sometimes, an interesting activity. Nobody can dispute that the EFF Commander in Chief and his trusted lieutenants have brought a sense of drama and even some entertainment into our politics of late. Yet, there is a fundamental contradiction in the EFF that resonates when one compares the various statements of the party, as articulated by its core group of leaders. Essentially, this contradiction centers on the issues of race and class in South Africa.

The national grievance of indigenous Africans and of Black people in general has not been resolved by the NDR. Political rights have been won, some BEE has taken place, some improvement in the conditions of workers has been experienced and poverty relief is now part of the states role. Yet, the issues of colonial patterns of ownership of land, resources, of the distribution of incomes and of the economy in general, remain. But the EFF seems only to make this announcement, as if the ANC does not recognize this fact. Crucially, the EFF does not articulate an alternative vision or program to address these challenges.

The drama around the EFF elected representatives being evicted from elected assemblies has been interesting. It has certainly brought to the fore the debate about whether our current conventions on dress and address in these institutions is relevant. Apart from some unacceptable behavior by the EFF, such as ignoring the rules of the legislatures, calling people rude names and storming buildings or ‘sitting in' in them, this issue is a symbolic one. The name-calling and labeling, is childish at best. By responding to all these infantile occurrences, more is done to promote the EFF than anything else. Julius Malema is both a performer and a politician. Providing a theatre for his activities is exactly what he wants from his opponents. It removes the issues of the day from the theatre of politics and drags us all into the politics of theatre.

Achille Mbembe has offered a different take on the EFF (Mail and Guardian, page 30, 1-7 August 2014).  Mbembe sees the EFF as an organic response to the contradictions in the NDR-reproduced capitalist accumulation, increasing inequality and differences in wealth, and the issue of racial property ownership patterns. Mbembe gives the EFF the credit for, ‘grasping the dilemmas of the moment', for being a ‘metaphor for the structural incompleteness of South African democracy' and argues that the EFF has a strategy of mobilizing for insurrection and for democratic victories.

Mbembe further argues that the EFF is the kernel of a future ‘Left' in South Africa and that new class and other alliances must be formed around the EFF and its program. There is some truth in Mbembes claims about our democracy, the economy and social difference. These are all under constant change, or should be. But has the EFF spoken to these issues coherently?

If we focus on the EFF's critique of the state of our nation and its proposals to remedy these, it is relatively easy to see why Mbembe's claims about the EFF hold no water. Within the EFF "critique" of the ANC, lies an embedded contradiction in terms of the politics of race and class. While the EFF has become more sophisticated at some levels and its leaders are attempting to articulate positions that accommodate minorities fears, it's outlook is characterized by a racial essentialism and a class reductionism that proposes a kind of dumbed down version of Black Consciousness thought as an alternative to the ANC's progressive non-racialism and its social democratic economic policies.

The reductionism apparent in the EFFs positions on economic issues is obvious. Proposals such as "nationalisation", "boycotts" and the like are catchy, but they do little to advance a program that will lead to or speed up transformation. There is no evidence locally or even internationally that nationalisation is a panacea for the economic challenges we face as a country. There is no doubt that nationalisation is a legitimate policy option.

The ANC has utilised this option to set up and strengthen state owned entities. But to use nationalisation as a form of expropriation and to suggest that this will ensure greater progress in terms of dealing with poverty, inequality and unemployment, is simply untested and has no measure of truth in reality. There are clear cases where the state playing a leading, coordinating and centralized role could benefit our people. For example, in the mining and beneficiation of platinum, where the price could be driven higher in the same manner OPEC did with crude oil. But with the EFF, nationalization never seems to be debated at any length or other than superficially.

Absent from the EFF policies is any clear position on issues relating to gender, age and disability, not to mention internationalism. When addressed, these come across more as add-ons, than anything else. Perhaps the genesis of the EFF may explain some of these lacks, as they were also to be found in another hurriedly created breakaway party from the ANC-COPE. COPE's inability to clearly articulate its ideology as different from the ANC's largely led to its demise. COPE never articulated an alternative vision for the country. Neither does the EFF. This raises an interesting issue to do with the hegemony of the ANC, as a perusal of even the DA's policies reveals a similar lack. While it proposes that it can deliver better administration and differentiates itself by offering watered down affirmative action and BEE, there is little else to distinguish the DA from the ANC.

Like the DA, COPE and others, since its inception, the EFF has positioned itself as an alternative to the ANC and its alliance partners, the SACP and COSATU, albeit a claim to be a more radical one. While there are many weaknesses in these organisations, the EFF has basically argued that these formations have sold out on the NDR and that the entire alliance has no future revolutionary role to play. It is true that the SACP no longer seems to articulate a coherent socialist alternative to the current capitalist system. It also does not give strategic leadership to the trade union movement or add any distinct value to the ANC, other than, as do all other members of the ruling party. COSATU is clearly in a deep crisis.

Service of its members and its lack of a program are further compounded by the divisions among its leaders. The ANC also suffering from critical weaknesses, in terms of the response to challenges such as corruption, poor service delivery and economic transformation. Yet these weaknesses can be overcome in the Tri-Partite Alliance, because there is a vision and an ideology that sits at the core of these organisation. This is contained in documents such as the Freedom Charter and runs through policies and programs of the ANC government, including into the NDP. There is nothing of that nature to be found in the EFF, the DA or any other opposition parties, with a few fringe exceptions that are simply not viable, such as WASP.

Oppositionism-being opposed to the ANC for the sake of it and not on the basis of any fundamental values, principles or policies-is what our country experiences from the EFF, COPE, the DA and others. All these parties support a mixed economy, welfarism, and historical redress. All say they are opposed to corruption and have many other common positions. There is no liberal or socialist alternative to the ANC that is articulated with any clarity that is organized effectively or implemented programmatically. Until such time as that happens, we will continue to experience politics as theatre.

The public will be asked to judge who are the best actors and not what are the truly relevant, radical changes that need to be made to the current policies of the ANC to address the contradictions that the past-colonialism and apartheid-and the current capitalist domination of our society make our lived reality. This type of politics suits showmanship and certain types of personalities, but does nothing for the poor, the weak, the exploited, the unemployed or those discriminated against. It is easy to see why populism can prosper when the lives of so many people are so miserable even after liberation. It is also clear that with a vacuum on the left of politics, it is easy for quick fixes, snake oil and placebos to be passed off as real treatment for our national illnesses.

But the EFF is not a revolutionary alternative to the ANC. The DA and COPE are not even reformist oppositions to the ANC. There currently isn't an opposition because the ANC still articulates the demands, will, wishes and views of the vast majority of South Africans.  It may not have all the answers. It is the task of its members and leadership to consistently and more aggressively develop these. If it fails in this regard, an alternative will naturally arise. But it will not be one based on the politics of personal dissatisfaction and grievance. It must be based on a progressive program of action that our people can be mobilised around. In the meantime, what the ANC needs to focus on is good governance, good administration and good services. The rest is just bread an circuses.

Dr. Phillip Dexter is an academic, an activist and an entrepreneur. He writes in his personal capacity.

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