Student politics is fractious and complicated by its populist character — whoever steps in front leads the crowd. I came face to face with this reality twice in the past few months: first in a church at a University of the Witwatersrand peace meeting in October and, more recently, at the Higher Education Convention, cohosted by the National Education Crisis Forum.
The peace meeting was disrupted by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). At the convention, students and workers wanted recognition for their struggles and the convention was one way to affirm that and ensure the powerful were listening. The convention ended in an EFF-led brawl and with students turning on each other.
Months of organisation and preparation for an inclusive platform for constituency-based policy dialogue were destabilised.
The alternative to dialogue is too ghastly to contemplate: violent student protest and deepening state-led “securitisation” at universities and, more broadly, societal struggles. Universities will not survive in this context and South Africa’s tenuous democracy will plunge further into crisis.
Student formations are generally extensions of political formations. This complicates the dynamics in student politics and in #FeesMustFall protests. Who is really leading?
The EFF is an interesting example in this regard, given its militaristic and hierarchical form of organisation.
For the EFF, delegitimising the ANC at all costs means the worse things get, the better for the party in any social arena.
Deepening crisis through disruption is a political strategy. From Parliament to universities, the EFF’s mode of often violent disruptive engagement is becoming central to its political practice and this is also diffusing as a societal norm.
This means the EFF, in the context of the Higher Education Convention, was not willing to rise above its narrow partisan interests and place the interests of the country first. Solutions to take the country forward are not important but short-term political calculation to upstage the ANC state is all that matters — even in a context in which the main protagonist of social dialogue is not even the ANC state.
This is not oppositional politics but the politics of wrecking everything because collective societal solutions don’t matter. It also means this short-term strategy will, intentionally and unintentionally, unleash forces that will also clash with the EFF down the road. It is breeding politics that will come back to harm it, assuming it is successful in growing in electoral terms.
But perpetual violent disruption as a mode of politics also means politics bereft of an understanding of what is essential for a democracy to work. South Africa’s transformative constitutionalism, like all modern democracies, requires all contending political forces to accept certain rights and procedural standards in the political game.
A crucial assumption at work in this political framework is the idea that political difference is acceptable and should not become antagonistic. The EFF does not respect political difference and is antagonistic to all political forces that do not agree with it. It is not just unSouth African, as some have suggested, but is also deeply undemocratic.
Competitive political escalation for the EFF means: accept its way or face violence. Does this make the EFF fascist? Liberal journalists, some academics and even the South African Communist Party have declared the EFF fascist. The notion of fascism is a slippery concept to define. As an appellation it has multiple meanings, both historically and comparatively. Liberal scholars usually work with a typology of key characteristics to define fascism such as: charismatic leadership, racism, ultra-nationalism, paramilitarism, violence (actual or threatened), anti-parliamentarianism, anti-constitutionalism and anti-Semitism.
This is helpful to a degree, but runs into analytical problems given that context-specific conditions and dynamics shape fascist forces. In the first half of the 20th century it was easy to discern national variations of either Italian fascism or Nazi totalitarianism.
Today, fascism is mutating and manifesting in a complex matrix of national and global material conditions. It has arrived dressed in pinstriped suits or sometimes as a suicide bomber.
This brings us back to the question: Are those wearing red berets under the EFF banner fascists? Is the main contribution the EFF has made to South African politics merely to draw more taut the line between those for democratic transformation and those against?
An EFF student from the University of Johannesburg takes part in a #FeesMustFall protest last year. (Delwyn Versamy, M&G)
The EFF is a contradictory formation and on its current trajectory it is not a visionary nation builder, nor a programmatic force for change, nor a democratic political opposition. Although at some moments it looks good in relation to the kleptocratic Jacob Zuma regime, we should not assume that it is better.
The EFF expresses serious ambiguities in its ideological make-up: constitutional/anti-constitutional, Marxist-Leninist/stakeholder capitalist, male chauvinist/yet appealing to some women, decolonising/yet willing to accept support from white capital.
The EFF, like historical fascism, draws its ideas from across the political spectrum. As a result, what it stands for in terms of values, beliefs and ideology is unclear. It makes it up as it goes through the theatre of national politics, expedient political manoeuvring and through its authoritarian populist inventiveness.
The EFF received just over a million votes in the previous elections. Does this mean that those who vote for it believe in its mercurial, shallow and makeshift belief system? Are these the citizens who buy into the spectacle of authoritarian populist politics?
An electoral outcome is difficult to decipher. There are always different degrees of support for any political party. This ranges from hardcore support and sympathisers to swing voters. In the last election, the EFF certainly picked up a significant anti-ANC vote and it also found traction in sections of the black middle class and the unemployed poor.
The EFF could not build on this momentum of national support and win a local government election outright. Instead it emerged from the elections as a coalition partner to the neoliberal Democratic Alliance in most big metros. Moreover, given its disposition to violent disruption and its inability to provide a way forward on national challenges, it is likely that its electoral support has peaked. The next national election will be telling and will really be surprising if South Africans vote for a party that merely offers fiery rhetoric, intolerance and violence.
But this still leaves red on EFF T-shirts, berets and paraphernalia. What does this mean? For some the red dimension of EFF identity makes it left, coupled with a militant dose of rhetoric, such as evoking the big N word — nationalisation. Nationalisation has always been about state capitalism and nothing more. The EFF has successfully claimed a space to the left of the ANC and has projected itself as a left force, picking up on residual anti-establishment sentiment.
Yet its antics in Parliament of representing workers with overalls and hard hats smacks of hypocrisy. Whereas most workers earn less than R3 000 a month, an EFF MP earns more than R1-million a year or more than R80 000 a month. It pays to act exploited in the EFF script.
But the EFF should not believe that workers are not watching or are unaware of the social distance. Moreover, the EFF has not united left forces of the working class, the left intelligentsia or more generally left social movements. Nor has it provided a serious analysis of contemporary capitalism to guide its interventions. The EFF, in claiming to be left, has undermined the prospects of the left in South Africa. It is contributing to the defeat of the left.
The EFF is not a left force by any stretch of the imagination despite its own declarations, the colour red in its identity and simplistic media representations of it as a left party. An EFF in power will not take South Africa to the left; it does not have what it takes. An EFF-led South Africa will probably mean most South Africans will think the Zuma days were wonderful.
There is no straight line from Malema to the United States’ Donald Trump, to France’s far-right Marine Le Pen or even the fundamentalist group al-Shabab. The EFF is not fascist in the 20th-century sense, but is certainly expressing elements of a 21st-century fascism in its role in South African politics. It is pioneering an original fascism in the South African context. As it fights the ANC and other progressive social forces violently, it is also delegitimising democratic processes and forms of dialogue.
Unlike the ANC, the EFF claims to be left yet it is politically and ideologically certainly not left. Anti-capitalist ideology is meaningless in the EFF understanding of the world and thus it is not a serious left-orientated force. The interests it seeks to aggregate are disparate and not representative of the working class as a whole. Its disdain for hard-won democratic values, constitutional principles and practices makes it nothing less than an antidemocratic pariah.
South Africans need to choose carefully where they stand in relation to the EFF. The national dialogue to resolve the higher education crisis will continue in coming months, with or without the EFF.
Student formations also have to reflect on their commitment to disciplined, inclusive and respectful democratic dialogue to find policy solutions.
Vishwas Satgar is an academic at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is also a member of the convening committee of the South African University Staff Network and a partner of the National Education Crisis Forum that hosted the Higher Education Convention.