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Malema, the EFF and the politics of hate

- Adam Habib

I am not a great fan of the EFF. I believe that it is a proto-fascist movement, one prone to racism, militarism and the politics of hatred.

Its leaders speak of socialism, anti-capitalism and empowerment but their conduct belies this and their politics is likely to implode the economy and plunge us into an equality of immiseration. Their leadership pride themselves on being university educated, arrogantly mocking Zuma for not being so, yet they betray an ideological rigidity and a thoughtless, formulaic politics that is typical of a bygone era. They condemned the Zuma Presidency for corruption, but they too were similarly involved in all manner of corruption and unethical conduct in Limpopo, and in institutions which they managed. This conduct has followed them into the EFF where they have compromising relationships with tobacco smugglers and all manner of dubious persons. 

For too long have analysts, journalists and opposition politicians cut them slack, given the EFF’s opposition to Zuma and the fact that they invigorated the fight simply because they played by an alternative set of rules. They excused the violence, militarism and racialised rhetoric of the party simply because it was directed against those of whom they did not approve. But they had forgotten the words of the simple poem 'First they came for ...', written by the German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoller, which foretold the consequences of the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis' rise to power. Let us remind ourselves of those powerful words: 

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. 

Only now have journalists and politicians risen to the dangers posed by this leadership, when they themselves have become the target. Unable to feed off an easy political target like Zuma, the EFF has resorted to race baiting, threats and even violent altercations against a much wider range of individuals and stakeholders. They have voiced racialised rhetoric against whites, Indians and Coloureds, and they have received some support for this from within society itself. After all, our increased economic inequalities and the resultant social and political polarisation have created sufficient angry persons who can be mobilised by racial and ethnic entrepreneurs of all kinds. We see this phenomenon in many parts of the world, including in Western Europe and the United States. Why are we then surprised when it happens here? 

One could ask whether it is fair to make generalised statements about racism and ethnic prejudice. There are of course many such racist or ethnic tropes. Here are a few: South African Whites, Indians and Coloureds are racist against Africans. EFF leaders have been at the forefront of propagating this in the last few weeks and months. But there are many others. African domestic workers get treated badly by African families and therefore prefer working for White employers. African employees are lazy and use affirmative action and BEE to progress. Indian businessmen are wily and manipulate African politicians. Zulus are violent. Xhosas are smart and intellectually-oriented. Muslims are fanatics and terrorists. And the list goes on. 

Almost all of these racialised and ethnic tropes have some element of truth if read and interpreted in a decontextualised manner. Many Indians, Whites and Coloureds are indeed racist against Africans, but not all are, and yet all are condemned by playing to the racialised trope. Many African families do indeed pay their employees lower than they should, but not all African families do this and yet all are condemned if one plays to the racialised trope. White families may indeed pay African employees higher, but it may be entirely explained by their location in the class hierarchy of South African society. Some Zulus may indeed be violent, but so are many Indians, Whites, Coloureds, Xhosas, Vendas and all manner of others. Some Africans do indeed use affirmative action policies and BEE to avoid being productive in their employment, but this is not typical of the majority of Africans. Moreover, this behaviour is no different to that of Afrikaner Whites when they were the beneficiaries of affirmative action policies in the apartheid era. Some Muslims are indeed terrorists but so are many others of other religious groups. 

Some of these racialised tropes can be explained through a structural or class analysis. Let me use two examples within the Indian community to explain this to our Marxist leaders in the EFF. There is often a view that South African Indians are naturally entrepreneurial and that this somehow accounts for their economic success in the post-apartheid era. But as is well recognised, South African Indians were discriminated against under apartheid, but not nearly as severely as Africans. They were entitled to engage in small trade and this allowed for the emergence of a class of Indian traders. In addition, prior to the introduction of VAT, South African had a General Sales Tax which required traders to charge the tax and then hand it over to the revenue service. But many small traders, Indians included, charged the tax, but did not hand it over to the revenue service. They avoided doing so by simply under-reporting their turnover. The net effect was that they accumulated significant cash reserves, which came to be known as uplang which was poured into houses and cars during the apartheid years. When the transition occurred in the 1990s and a tax amnesty was declared by the newly democratic government, Indian traders were one of the groups within the Black population with significant cash reserves which could be invested in parts of the economy that were now opening up. The net effect was that Indian businessmen performed particularly well in the post-apartheid era and this has often been erroneously credited to a natural Indian entrepreneurship. 

Now for the negative trope. As Julius Malema and his deputy, Floyd Shivambu have so often reminded us, African workers are indeed particularly severely exploited by Indian traders. This can in part be explained by the fact that many of these Indian business owners are small traders where these kinds of exploitative practices are common. Workers experience similar exploitation at the hands of small traders within African and other communities. In the US, for instance, similar accusations are made against Korean small traders. Of course, this structural explanation must not be used as an excuse. Exploitative behaviour must be condemned and then addressed. But if this is to be done, the causes need to be understood and the condemnation must be applied equally to all irrespective of skin pigmentation, as must the policies to address the exploitation of workers. 

There is also the belief by many, including the leadership of the EFF and Black First Land First, that Africans cannot be racist. This esoteric debate has emerged particularly strongly in recent years with the rise of Africanist and Black consciousness discourses. This view holds that since racism was systemic and entrenched through political power, Blacks could not have been racist because they did not have power. In the current context, this view has morphed into suggesting that Black politicians hold office but not power because this resides within the economy. This automatically leads to the same conclusion: Blacks cannot be racist. The view is of course methodologically nonsensical since it is oblivious of the fact that power is always a relational phenomenon and is evident in the relationship between any two individuals. Nevertheless, the danger of the view is that it has legitimised all kinds of outrageous racist rhetoric and behaviour by some political activists and leaders. 

What does all of this say about how we should proceed? The EFF observe these racialised tropes and instead of understanding and developing an agenda to address them, instead they play to them. They mobilise on a racist ticket and advance a politics of hate because it suits their short-term political agenda. In the process, they divide society even further, undermining the very inclusive development opportunities that they claim to want to foster. But this is not the only option available. For non-racial progressives, those interested in a common, inclusive humanity, there is an alternative path. It requires progressives of all ideological, racial and cultural stripes to band together, to recognise the racism within our midst, to transcend ethnic chauvinism, and to develop a programmatic agenda of redress. 

Other political parties, other than the EFF of course, could also proactively develop such an agenda. It would, however, require of them to act on principle, and to openly challenge the EFF's (and for that matter AfriForum's) politics of hate. Yet too many of them, including those within the ANC, DA and the UDM, have been willing to look the other way and enter into opportunistic alliances with the EFF. 

If would be useful for all to note the words of the Ugandan scholar, Mahmood Mamdani, one of the continent's most noted political scientists, when explaining the systemic logic of Africa’s slippery slide to a fractured and politically divided continent. Mamdani suggests that the real crime of colonialism was to politicise indigeneity by granting civic rights to non-natives and denying them to natives who were compelled to live under customary rule. Mainstream nationalism continued this colonial tradition but subverted it, tying entitlements to indigeneity. This led to the continuous political disenfranchisement of yesterday’s immigrants, even though they were the product of what he termed “the dynamism of the commodity economy”. 

To decode for our Marxist leaders in the EFF: playing the politics of race and hate inevitably degenerates into a politics of ethnicity and tribalism, the ultimate consequence of which is war, division, poverty and continued economic and political disempowerment. Mamdani's solution: to challenge the automatic link between indigeneity on the one hand and political identity and rights on the other. As he reflects: “political communities are defined, in the final analysis, not by a common past but by a resolve to forge a common future under a single political roof, regardless of how different or similar their pasts may be”. My choice and my consciousness define me as a South African. I am South African because I want to be South African. I live here and see this as my home. I describe myself as South African to the outside world by carrying this country’s passport and holding its citizenship. This is a voluntary act and cannot be taken away by any of the ethnic entrepreneurs masquerading as supporters of the poor. 

Yet the EFF can hurt this society, by feeding off our divisions and polarising us even further. Only if we collectively stand up to them, can we defeat their “politics of hate”. And only if we encode within our politics of reconciliation, an agenda of justice and historical redress, can we keep it permanently at bay. Ultimately, it should be borne in mind that the systemic entrenchment of the rights of historic victims lies in the entrenchment of the rights of all. 

Professor Adam Habib is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand and author of South Africa’s suspended revolution: Hopes and Prospects.