The EFF disruption of the SONA last week happened at a time when the ANC is having difficulty holding together and has not itself contributed significantly to public debate. The DA's race denialism may well have ignited some debate, but there remains a condition, in South African politics, where politics happens without political engagement and interrogation of ideas. This relates primarily to the de-ideologisation of the ANC, due to its preoccupation with patronage networks and financial rewards, often pursued by any means necessary.
For all its theatricality, we have to ask whether or not the EFF makes any contribution towards remedying this flaw - the absence of political debate - in our democracy.
Why is it important to understand and come to terms with what the statements and actions of the EFF signify? Given that the EFF is an electorally insignificant player in most cases, why do we need to characterise and dissect what it represents beyond the "fiery" rhetoric?
The EFF describes itself as comprising revolutionary fighters, trying to link itself rhetorically with some of the most famous revolutionary names. But this political message, more generally, is merely an adornment. The reality is that the EFF represents a threat, always of violence or actually being on the point of perpetrating violence. One is reminded of the law of assault that classifies assault, not only requiring actual acts of violence but also actions where the person making the threat is capable of carrying it out.
EFF statements are not an invitation to debate, but merely presenting the rhetoric of a version of the left, which bears no relation to the way they act in politics or in their lives outside of parliamentary chambers.
It may well be that the EFF can gather further electoral support, despite its vacuous message, for we have seen that it is demagogues like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson or Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who have, surprisingly, won over many people in the working classes, for whom their message is in the final analysis not beneficial.
The EFF represents a threat to democracy and peace.
The EFF is both anti-democratic and violent, and it is emerging as a major threat to the democratic order, whatever their electoral fortunes may be. If they claim to be on the left, as many commentators and scholars suggest, can that be true? No person on the left can be complicit in closing the democratic space. Socialists, communists and all others on the left place value on democracy, even if they would like to see that democratic order expanded in scope. It is significant that Joe Slovo's pathbreaking evaluation of the collapse of Soviet socialism described the divorce of democracy from the socialist project as a central reason for its fall. (https://www.marxists.org/subject/africa/slovo/1989/socialism-failed.htm).
Defending democracy and constitutionalism need not mean that it cannot be amplified, especially in terms of the extent and character of popular participation. Many who fought for freedom did not intend it to simply mean periodic voting. That is clear in key statements from the UDF period. (See Murphy Morobe, “Towards a People's Democracy: The UDF View”, Review of African Political Economy, 40,1 (1987), pp. 81–95; Michael Neocosmos, "From People's Politics to State Politics: Aspects of National Liberation in South Africa", in Adebayo. O. Olukoshi (ed.), The Politics of Opposition in Africa (Uppsala, Nordic Africa Institute, 1998), pp. 195–241. And Raymond Suttner, The UDF period and its meaning for contemporary South Africa, Journal of Southern African Studies, 2004).
But that is the least of the EFF's concerns. If they believe in a qualitatively different form of democracy, augmenting what we have, it has not been foregrounded or even articulated. As far as I am aware, they have never advanced or practised popular democracy and internally, their politics is extremely centralised and authoritarian - that authoritarianism is also what they communicate to the outside. It is seen in the cult-style leadership and also in the extensive turnover of MPs (Benjamin Roberts, "The Economic Freedom Fighters: Authoritarian or democratic contestant?", Collette Schulz-Herzenberg and Roger Southall, Election 2019. Change and stability in South Africa's democracy, 2019), p 109.
Theirs is a politics of spectacle and initially it was effective in those terms. The appropriation of red to signify the blood of workers and their claimed allegiance to socialism, the uniforms of workers, including the most downtrodden, domestic workers. In so doing they sought to displace the SACP's colours and claim to represent the working class. (See Raymond Suttner, "The Economic Freedom Fighters' politics of dress", Recovering democracy in South Africa, 2015, pp 223-5.
The democratic order that we have represented a major gain in the history of South Africa. It needs to be defended. Some of the younger generation in their eagerness to delegitimise the settlement of 1994, fail to recognise the historical significance of universal adult suffrage - votes for all. There were many songs about the vote, and the notion of universal adult suffrage immediately undermined the prevalent discourse of black men and women as "boys" and "girls", in perpetual childhood, or as General Hertzog once put it a "child race".
Even if the EFF or others claim to be more radical than what the present order offers one needs first to ensure that the gains that have been made are defended before one tries to enhance these with broader and deeper democratic gains.
Any political player that perpetrates illegality and violence in a constitutional democracy is a threat to that order. One of the key reasons for the 1994 settlement was to end the violence. This was not because the Mandela-led ANC had been tamed, but that people wanted peace. It was not white people in the suburbs who were being massacred but almost entirely black people and the ANC of the time wanted to bring this to an end. The peace that we have needs to be defended now and more needs to be done - in a time of widespread acts of violence in society at large - to popularise the principle of non-violence throughout our society.
Any political player that threatens freedom of speech and assembly undermines our freedom. Any political player that physically threatens others threatens the democracy that belongs to all.
Any political player that practices racism, whether in utterances or in physical actions is a threat to democracy. In the last few years the EFF has not hesitated to deploy racism, especially against Indians. The attack on Pravin Gordhan is marked by exotifying him, by calling him Jamnadas, his middle name. That is a way of Othering and saying that he really does not belong here.
EFF evolution from constitutionalism towards siding with State Capture
The EFF captured many people's imaginations at one point and contributed towards restoring constitutionalism in its efforts to hold former president Jacob Zuma responsible for the Nkandla scandal with its slogan "pay back the money!" It was one of the litigants - with other political parties - calling out Zuma in the courts.
Even then there remained unresolved questions around Julius Malema and others around irregularities, acts of aggression against journalists and others in earlier periods. This included unfinished business with SARS and irregular financial gains in Limpopo.
But once Zuma fell, the EFF began a process of realignment, forming a de facto alliance with those who had been complicit in State Capture, lending them vocal support and stigmatising those who took up the battle to bring wrongdoers to book.
The EFF had its own reasons, old and new ones, for joining with those who were implicated in fraud. It came to be alleged, with extensive evidence, to be implicated in the looting of the VBS bank, benefitting its top leaders and the EFF itself. The question of the friendships Julius Malema forms raises questions, notably the funding of his accommodation by self-confessed tobacco smuggler Adriano Mazzotti (https://citizen.co.za/news/south-africa/breaking-news/2086536/sars-seizes-eff-funder-mazzottis-property-over-r70m-debt/ ).
There is also the prospect of the resurrection of a SARS case from some years ago against Malema, which was not finalised in the period when Tom Moyane was Commissioner. With reconstitution of SARS structures, that case could be revived. This fear of facing such claims may be the reason behind EFF objections to the appointment of the current Commissioner of SARS, Edward Kieswetter.
The EFF defended former SARS Commissioner Tom Moyane, who had been found by the Nugent Commission to have destroyed much of SARS's capacity. Also, the EFF has provided political support and joined litigation on the side of the current Public Protector, Adv Busisiwe Mkhwebane, in her continued targetting of Gordhan and other allies of Cyril Ramaphosa.
Why does the EFF bear so much enmity towards Pravin Gordhan? Gordhan is the key figure directing the clean-up of State-Owned Enterprises and formerly Commissioner of SARS. The EFF fear and want to prevent a thoroughgoing cleanup. This is where they make common cause with many Zuma loyalists, and it may be, with the Public Protector, too.
EFF disrupts SONA - what reason?
In watching the EFF's attempts to disrupt SONA, it was striking how empty their political points were, repeating by rote what they had said before, relying on extreme language rather than analysis or issues for genuine debate. It is true that they were making a limited effort to cast their statements as "points of order", but what they raised as objections to the presence of both FW de Klerk and Pravin Gordhan were unconvincing as political statements, which seems to have been their purpose.
They have never previously objected to the presence of De Klerk, so why is it an issue now? I am not an admirer of De Klerk. I do not believe that De Klerk was in good faith in his "acknowledgement" of "mistakes" that apartheid entailed. His foundation has no right to deny that apartheid was an international crime. It was a crime against humanity, and that has been codified in international law, and before that happened, it was part of international mobilisation and also the statements of bodies like the International Law Commission. (The foundation has just withdrawn their statement denying that apartheid was an international crime: https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/fw-de-klerk-foundation-withdraws-apartheid-statement-apologises-to-sa-20200217 ).
I also do not accept that De Klerk was in good faith in unbanning organisations in 1990, insofar as he did so while simultaneously unleashing security forces against the ANC and its allies and supporters.
But if the transition entailed making peace which would stop the killings, and some concessions were required in negotiations, one of these was making De Klerk a deputy president. That meant he was in the National Assembly - many years before this sitting, as someone pointed out at SONA. It has also become a regular practice for De Klerk to be present along with other former presidents.
In the EFF's disruption during the Zuma era, there were some convincing arguments they made, based on constitutionalism. That is gone. It is weak trickery that is deployed, and the Speaker, Thandi Modise and chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, Amos Masondo, spent a lot of time trying to reason with the EFF, instead of throwing the rule book at them. Correctly, they sought to avoid the spectacle of the EFF being ejected with physical force.
Character of EFF
The EFF emerged at a leadership level from the ANC Youth League, those that were prepared to "kill for Zuma", and not as Nelson Mandela put it, "prepared to die". There are a number of aspects of that period, where Malema was amongst the foremost misogynists during the Zuma rape trial and in the ANC and was hauled before the equality court. There are many allegations of sexual harassment within the EFF (and it is of course not the only organisation where such allegations and practices are found).
Later Malema fell out with Zuma and was also expelled from the ANC and gradually moved to establish the EFF using imagery close to that associated with the Cuban revolution. The difference is that the Cubans were involved in a real revolution and the Commander-in-Chief, Fidel Castro, was a real soldier, as were Che Guevara and many others.
The EFF attempts to make itself appear as heir to this tradition, but in place of the revolutionary discipline that guided the Cuban fighters, we have ruffians, people who beat up journalists and threaten others, especially female ones, leading to threats of rape.
No matter what rhetoric is deployed, the EFF no longer contributes towards political debate. It is a threat to democracy and there needs to be a response that makes clear that the people of South Africa will not tolerate violence and intimidation. We need to make it very clear that we will not allow our democracy to be destroyed and will defend it.
Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner