/ 19 June 2024

Reevaluating the EFF and MK: Authoritarian nationalism versus leftism

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Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), during a rally at Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane, South Africa, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

International coverage of the South African election has differed sharply from the consensus in the local media and among South African intellectuals in an important way.

In the international media the Economic Freedom Fighters and the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party have regularly been described as “left” or “far left” with the EFF sometimes being described as “Marxist”. No credible left intellectuals in South Africa see either party in these terms and the EFF is seldom described this way in South Africa. The MK party is never described in this way.

There has been an ongoing debate as to the political character of the EFF in the South Africa media with some commentators describing it as fascist or neo fascist and others describing it as a form of authoritarian nationalism or authoritarian populism. 

Because the EFF often flip-flops on important issues such as xenophobia, a number of commentators have, correctly, changed their analyses of the party’s politics as its politics have changed.

The EFF does not come out of either of the two main left currents in the Congress alliance. These are the communist tradition anchored by the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the popular democratic left tradition first associated with the trade union movement and then some currents in the United Democratic Front. 

The EFF has its roots in the authoritarian nationalist current in the ANC associated with figures like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Peter Mokaba.

Mokaba’s legacy is complicated as Jacob Dlamini, author of Askari: A Story of Collaboration and Betrayal in the Anti-apartheid Struggle, has shown that he worked as a spy for the apartheid state. But he appeared as a radical nationalist, militantly opposed to white supremacy. Madikizela-Mandela’s politics were also a form of radical nationalism with the same militant opposition to white supremacy.

Neither were communists and neither worked with the popular democratic left. Radical nationalism is a form of radical politics in a colonial context but it only becomes a form of left politics if it takes on a clear commitment to liberation in terms of class as well as national liberation, and if it is committed to building the organisational power of the working class.

There are, of course, parts of the EFF’s programme that do overlap with the old-fashioned statist forms of leftism associated with the Soviet Union, such as the nationalisation of the mines and banks. But nationalisation itself is not a left programme. The 25-point programme of the Nazi party adopted in 1920 demanded the nationalisation of businesses and the expropriation of land without compensation

Nationalisation of business and the expropriation of land to redistribute the surplus to the working class is a left programme. Nationalisation and expropriation of the land to bring wealth generating assets under the control of national elites without any commitment to the interests of the working class is a form of radical nationalism, not leftism. Nationalism itself can take various forms including far right and fascist forms.

The left tradition in the trade unions has always been committed to worker control, to the idea that workers should take over and run the means of production. This a democratic ideal, and one that is very different to the idea that the state should seize ownership of mines, factories and so forth. 

There is a similar dynamic with rural struggles. Peasant struggles have always adhered to a version of the slogan “land to the tiller”, an idea that is very different to the idea that all land should be handed over to the state.

Even oppressed nations have internal class differentiation. If a political party says it wants to place land and the means of production under state control but does not say which classes will benefit it is highly likely that national elites will benefit while the working class and the poor remain exploited and marginalised. This is what we saw with much of the fast-track land reform programme in Zimbabwe where Zanu-PF elites often benefited, leaving farm workers as poor and exploited as they were before the programme.

The only successful left struggles in recent decades have been in Latin America. Many left governments have come to power and some have made remarkable progress for their people. One thinks of Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia and other countries. Venezuela, under severe pressure from United States sanctions and coup attempts, has degenerated into a statist authoritarianism. 

But with this exception all the left governments that have come to power in Latin America are rooted in social movements and see their role as democratising society, not in holding all power in the state. 

The EFF does not appear to be inspired by the achievements of left governments in countries such as Brazil or Bolivia. It is, though, inspired by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s regime, a regime that is clearly an example of a brutal and highly corrupt form of authoritarian nationalism. 

Anybody calling Putin’s viciously predatory regime “left” would be laughed out of town. Even the nutty faction of the left that support Putin does so because they see his authoritarian nationalism as a challenge to the hegemony of the West and not because they see it as in any way left.

We must acknowledge, though, that the EFF’s politics is contradictory and unstable and has a variety of political elements. For instance its recent turn towards embracing African migration is a form of radical Pan-Africanism rather than a narrow form of nationalism. For this reason it is not possible to give a definitive ideological definition of the party’s politics but it is clear that it is generally fairly described as highly authoritarian nationalism rather than leftism.

While there are debates to be had about the political character of the EFF, the description of the MK party as “left” or even “far left” in the international media is a shocking error of judgment. It is so far right on social issues to the point that it can fairly be described as being on the extreme right. Although some try to deny this, it also has an obvious ethnic character to its politics, something that is always anathema to the left. The MK party also takes a position on traditional leaders that is far to the right of the Inkatha Freedom Party. 

The very idea of the left was founded during the French Revolution in the struggle against the aristocracy and there is no left party or movement anywhere in the world that does not support the overthrow of aristocratic power. The MK party’s support for the extension of the power of traditional leaders is also a far right position. 

As is true of the EFF, the MK party’s support for nationalisation does overlap with the old Soviet style form of leftism. But there is no explicit class component to the party’s politics and it is certainly not aimed at ensuring worker control of nationalised industries.

In light of the kleptocratic mode of rule displayed by Jacob Zuma when he was president of the country it is clear that his party’s desire to take control of mines, banks and so on can only result in their plunder by national elites. The MK party would do to the mines and banks what Zuma’s rule did to SAA, Eskom and other institutions. This is a form of predatory nationalism in the interests of national elites and is very, very far from being a left programme. 

The MK party is even more openly supportive of Putin than the EFF and, unlike the EFF, takes a very hard right view on social issues. It is true that the MK party does differ from the right-wing populism associated with leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro by advocating state rather than private control of the commanding heights of the economy.

But it does so with the aim of continuing the elite-driven looting that was interrupted with Zuma’s removal from the presidency in 2018. Nobody in their right mind believes that a government led by Zuma would use the surplus from nationalised mines to drive social programmes in the way that Evo Morales did with nationalised gas in Bolivia.

The international media needs to do a lot better in its characterisation of South African politics. The idea that the EFF is left is at least highly debatable. The idea that the MK party is left is utterly ridiculous. It is, of course, a new and unstable political organisation but, with that caveat, we can say that it is certainly a case of predatory and authoritarian nationalism with far right-wing social views and arguably a wholly right-wing project.

Dr Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI.