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Will the Centre Hold?

In South Africa’s platinum belt, life and politics are as hard-scrabble as the earth on which they are contested: natural resources and poverty are plentiful, and support for the ruling ANC is in short supply following the brutal events at Marikana. Kwanele Sosibo travels through the launch of the Economic Freedom Fighters and confronts the opportunistic benevolence, the rhetoric of revival and the promise of renewal in the land of “permanently incomplete”.

Illustrator: Donovan Ward

Illustrator: Donovan Ward

More than 50 buses, ranging from vintage Putco-like passenger models to more comfortable, charter-style coaches, are parked parallel to each other just off the main drag connecting Wonderkop hostel to the Marikana koppies. In between some buses are rows of taxis; Quantums, Nyathis and the odd Siyaya.

The vehicles have brought supporters of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) to the party’s launch rally.

To the north, sedans and hatchbacks are arranged in stacked rows facing the direction of the main convening area, with its marquees and main stage.

There are several footpaths on the southern border of Nkanini, where a rubble-strewn, patchy bowl of land, about the size of three football pitches, separates the informal settlement from one of Lonmin’s smelting operations.

At the southern edge of Nkanini, a slightly raised and graded gravel road suggests impending development, or perhaps just the way things are – permanently incomplete.

To the south-west these footpaths and roads crisscross on the stretch of land where police shot down mineworkers on 16 August 2012, eventually killing 34 people. The paths meander around and behind the koppies to Marikana, where they are eventually interrupted by a railway line that separates the shacks from the cash-lending district.

On this sunny spring Sunday, 13 October, the view of this tragically historic open space is obscured by cars and thousands of people dressed in EFF uniforms of red berets, T-shirts, combat caps and pantsula-chic, worker-style overalls known in some townships as dantsani.

It is almost 11a.m. The koppies themselves are alive with the sounds of toyi-toying and several members of various EFF branches hold banners specifying their respective locations.

A group of about 40 party supporters approaches the eastern edge of the koppie, its members singing “Zuma walibona thupa” (“Zuma can you see your hiding approaching”). Minutes later, as if by some secret decree, the branch representatives begin to descend the koppie, perhaps anticipating party commander-in-chief Julius Malema’s 12-o’clock arrival.

To ease the wait, there is a programme of fillers. On the main stage a theatre group proclaims Malema’s personal sacrifices, and the will to “follow him every step he takes”. A pastor waffles on incongruously (Malema will later describe the man, Annanius Ralekholela, as “the man who made tent churches fashionable. He is no ordinary person and he’s a member of the EFF”). Malema arrives in a motorcade flanked by racing bikes and cruisers. It’s some time before he speaks – an interval filled by several scenes of supporters fawning at the feet of Malema the messiah.

A man from the police reservists’ forum says they will be volunteering for the EFF because, “when Malema takes over as president, we will work and be permanent employees and not be used liked condoms. Our sisters will not be checked from behind while they use their computers. Jackie Selebi didn’t hire the reservists, instead he let drugs into the country.”

A man from the National Transport Movement gets on the stage to talk of thousands of people dismissed by the Passenger Railway Agency of South Africa for fighting for their contractual rights and for addressing corruption.

Xolani Nzuza, a Lonmin mineworker and lynchpin of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which led the strike at Marikana, is next. He introduces himself as from a place called Bhebheza in Sterkspruit, Eastern Cape. He says, “We were picked up by Juju after we were abandoned by the president of Nkandla. He thought his shares would be endangered and that the Boers were more important.”

The support of mineworkers standing several feet in front of Nzuza, behind metal barriers, is audible.

“Juju came to us despite death threats and organised lawyers for us. Those lawyers, even today Zuma won’t pay them. This Farlam commission is not the Marikana commission, it’s Zuma’s commission… Juju came here first. Others didn’t know how to come here. We didn’t even know what we were going to eat. We’ve got Juju to thank… even to the way we are going to the court to get Zuma to pay our lawyers’ fees.”

Golden Miles Bhudu, who once stood in chains on a building ledge across from Luthuli House in support of Malema as he was facing internal disciplinary action from the ANC, steps to the podium to deliver “a message from Biko… The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed… my brothers and sisters, can we not see that we are in bondage…” Without warning, Bhudu gets into character and, almost word for word, re-enacts Malema’s dismissal of Jonah “bloody agent” Fisher. Juju is all smiles.

Next, a “chief” from the Free State takes off what looks like a leopard-skin robe as he announces that he will lay down his chieftainship for Juju. “Ace Magashule said I should get permission to host you, Juju. I would rather abandon my chieftaincy. The house of traditional leaders has been shut down from talking about land.”

General Bantu Holomisa, himself a former ANC leader, is next. “Phantsi ngamasela phantsi” (“down with criminals, down”), Holomisa shouts, testing his audience. “We would like to welcome EFF into the ranks of opposition politics. Don’t delude yourself into thinking life here is like a bowl of cherries. It’s not, far from it.”

Holomisa makes obvious overtures towards Juju’s party, couched in the rhetoric of alliance-building. The backdrop, he says, is one “where the party that has hindered us is imploding from infighting and corruption. They are so compromised that they can longer concentrate on service delivery.”

Holomisa goes on a tirade about the Independent Electoral Commission, and how its independence is compromised to such an extent that it can no longer be trusted to manage free and fair elections.

When his paternalism gets the better of him, he goes for the football metaphor. “Listen to me carefully,” he says. “As my boys, don’t close your eyes, always keep them open and make sure the thieves don’t steal our votes, because they will, seeing how many you are. But I can see that you’ll be a competent striker. You’ll be at number 11, I’ll be at number 6. When I pass you the ball, you must shibobo it all the way to the poles.”

Applause erupts. Is Holomisa submitting to a new pecking order in his platinum belt stronghold or is he just checking the lay of the land, as it were?

Mpho Ramakatsa, an ex-Robben Islander and part of the party’s old guard, declares Malema the people’s president and “one of the best leaders, who ensured that the Youth League influences politics in the ANC”.

Today, Ramakatsa says, “he is commanding an army, an army of highly trained soldiers in red berets ready to listen to marching orders. Holomisa is not welcoming us to politics. We’re a government in waiting.”

Mbuyiseni Ndlozi leads a stirring version of the “national anthem”, “Azania”.

If there is one thing Malema’s speech tells us, it’s that he has a God complex, and speaks of himself as an omniscient being whose qualities are contagious. His ego is on autopilot, his verbosity in full effect. Today he has a solution and offers refuge to everybody: teachers, waiters, domestic workers, orphans, construction workers, foreigners.

“Petrol attendants, security guards, shopkeepers and sex workers, you occupy a special place in the red heart of the EFF,” he says. This is Malema showing us his softer side. He even takes time to lead a version of the song immortalised by Peter Mokaba, this time rechristening it “Kiss the Boer”.

Nobody bats an eyelid – it’s another day at the office for the “president-in-waiting”.

As Floyd Shivambu proposes a toast to the infant party, a “fighter” in brown leather pants and a giant white EFF cape revs a Harley Davidson about 25 m from the stage. The crowd wants a piece of his bike, but he shoos his audience away. Shivambu instructs all those without champagne flutes to clench their fists. It is an unfortunate image but the “fighters” don’t seem to mind. Kelly Khumalo is about to go on, but Malema is nowhere to be seen. The koppie turns into something of a beach scene, except the sand is a dull grey and heavy with ore.

In the next few days, the EFF tries to build on the capital of the launch. Malema is there when the high court finally rules that lawyers representing the injured and arrested Marikana miners (led by Dali Mpofu) must be subsidised by the state. When Ferial Haffajee, the editor of City Press, pushes her black journalists into a corner, calling them cultural “imperialists” and “traditionalists” and airing the details of an internal strategic meeting on Twitter, Malema and his commissar for international relations, Andile Mngxitama, vent about the “dismissals” (even though no one has been dismissed) and threaten to parachute in to Media24.

On 17 October, soon after the scandal breaks, Mngxitama tweets: “Whatever Ferial is fighting it’s not racism. We wait to hear the other side of the story…” Days later he’s still on the subject: “City Press is not the only paper where blacks are said to be suffering. ALL papers and media is untransformed! Let’s debate on how to change this!”

In Diepsloot, on 18 October, the ANC Youth League and the EFF jockey for position, using the molestation and murder of two toddlers as their prop. There is a media outcry. Despite Malema’s ambitions for vanguardism, right now his “fighters” come across as rudely opportunistic.

Led by a layer of largely middle class youth, with no workerist foundation, the EFF’s connection to Marikana workers rests on the tangible, though uneasy, foundation of Juju’s opportunistic benevolence. He himself admits to this in an interview prior to the party’s launch.

“Politicians are opportunists, all of them,” says Malema. “There is no politician who will see an opportunity and not grab it. The material conditions at the time, they will always inform how you need to react to the situation and if the conditions in Marikana dictated to us to act the way we acted then so be it. We are happy.”

What Malema does is tap into a network of attainable resources to further a political end. The country’s president simply dithered a moment too long, and never recovered.

But who knows how and why people vote for particular parties and not others? For workers involved in the Lonmin strike, not voting seems to be a protest against the ANC, rather than a show of political affiliation.

“If I don’t choose any party, ” says Lonmin mineworker “Bhele” Tholakele Dlunga, “it’s like I’m still under the ANC. Every time I’ve voted, I’ve voted ANC. So if I don’t vote, it’s like I’m still propping up the ANC. Many people didn’t even know Malema’s face until the 16th. He helped us here and there, which is how he can come here and recruit. He paid for transport for us to go to Garankuwa [where many mineworkers were facing charges related to the strike and subsequent killings] – him and Anda [Bici]… It’s not to say because he did those things, so we’re going to vote for him, because people have free will.”

Despite Malema’s frankness about his opportunistic response to the Marikana aftermath, Dlunga believes Malema was not there to “canvass, as that time was not a time for doing that, it was like coming to a memorial service – anybody was allowed. Even the ANC came at some point.”

Dlunga prefers we do the interview in the back of a moving car somewhere in Nkanini. The roads are almost impossible to navigate with a sedan. We stop next to a yard where men are passing the time with drinks and a card game. Dlunga is less edgy than usual, but more pensive than relaxed.

Ask him about his thoughts on the party’s politics, and he says, “I haven’t been a part of those meetings so I don’t know the ins and outs. The workers at Lonmin haven’t familiarised themselves with those ins and outs. So he is welcome here so he can help us understand those questions that we still have.”

As for Zuma: “When Zuma got his position, he presented a clean face… but as time went on, he showed us his dirty side. We didn’t believe the corruption charges were legitimate, but because of the way he handled Marikana – he didn’t stand up for our rights – we can’t defend his innocence anymore.”

Even before the launch, there is fear that the party’s centre doesn’t quite hold. Kenny Kunene, the head of campaigns, withdraws before the first major event since the national assembly held in July. His pockets have holes from carrying the movement, suggests one version. He’s an ill fit, goes another version – with wasabi breath and soy sauce on his red shirt. In September – less than a month before the launch – there is a mini-exodus to the more upmarket party, Agang. Pule Matshitshe, the former Gauteng convener and serial political kerb crawler, suggests the EFF is fuelled by ANC-esque cabalism tearing away at the party. As he leaves for Agang, Matshitshe is joined by about 100 members.

Publicity stunt or not, evidence of the EFF as a hydra is visible on the day of the launch. Mngxitama, the figurehead of the September National Imbizo (SNI – a self-described national voluntary people’s movement that eschews the elitist nature of political parties) and self-styled Biko gatekeeper, stands out among his comrades onstage. In the row of comrades behind the cluster of chairs, he looks out of place, absent even. Xolani Nzuza, often seen in United Democratic Movement or African People’s Convention T-shirts at the Marikana Commission, sits on the railings near the staircase, offstage and somewhat alienated.

The enigmatic pastor, Ralekholela, doesn’t flinch when Malema derides Jacob Zuma as a man who puts the elderly to shame with his unseemly dancing ability. “When he gets low, people his age look away, and go: ‘yoh’”.

Mngxitama, an erstwhile harsh detractor of Malema, quotes Vladimir Lenin liberally in defending his unholy alliance with the EFF: “There are no morals in politics, only expedience. A scoundrel may be useful to you precisely because he is a scoundrel.”

Only a year before the killings at Marikana, Mngxitama would often deride Malema as the epitome of the comprador conundrum. A year later, he is a “disciplined cadre of the EFF” with a “political crush” on a man he once claimed uses words to deceive.

“For us to join we did not expend too much energy on his motives – why he did what he did,” says Mngxitama casually, somewhere in Melville, late on a rainy Monday.

“For me, the intentions of a revolutionary are not that important. What is important is whether the articulation of a project is consistent with the possibility to bring change. Robert Mugabe, they say his motives for land redistribution were for self-serving political interests. So what? I’m interested in if he delivers on the land question. So whatever the reasons that underpin Malema’s articulation of a new project – his fights inside the ANC, their own reactionary politics – it’s not important for us.”

On the SNI’s website, Mngxitama pens a persuasive critique of the movement he urges his comrades to infiltrate or collapse into:

“The forces of accumulation that emerged from the defeat of the Mbeki layer in Polokwane… led to the intensification of lumpen like accumulation and consumption epitomised by the Zuma Nkandla compound on the one hand and the Kenny Kunene vulgarity on the other. These moves are the two sides of the same lumpen accumulation process…”

Having recognised this, then, he asks:

“What does EFF then represent or how should it be characterised? Whilst the clarion call has what can be called ‘socialist’ rhetoric, in reality it’s a force that can be seen as a radical nationalism like Zanu PF: it is radical to the extent that it wants to end white monopoly over the economy and society, but reactionary in so far as it does not foreground social change and radical new state form and a socialist reorganisation of the economy.”

And the minimum returns? He concludes:

“When our movements join such a call, they… give themselves a chance to imbue EFF politics with its radical content… An engagement with the EFF also is a school of doing politics under the pressure of real forces that may at once be working in the same direction and against each other at the same time on certain other questions. That is the dynamism of political and revolutionary life within the reality of coalitions or fronts.”

It is a convincing argument, but one that some insiders say amounts to a career move by Mngxitama, ultimately fracturing and sinking the SNI.

“The SNI had already been weakened, by the second Imbizo… and they split because of gender issues and mudslinging,” say a comrade who prefers anonymity. “There were two SNI groups on Facebook. I mean, Malema, the things he says are right but he’s no socialist. So because of his pull, the merger made sense. Andile is for the political science students and Malema is for the people on the ground. I wasn’t a great fan of Malema until I met him. He’s not fascist at all. It all depends on what your politics are.”

As if as a parting shot, he adds, “It’s the thinkers in the SNI who were in favour of joining the EFF. It’s the thinkers as opposed to those who want us to go back to the PAC days.”

 

 

Chronic EFF berets spread

 

This is an excerpt from Kwanele Sosibo’s piece, originally published in print in the December 2013 edition of the Chronic.

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