What does South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party imagery communicate?

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) members of parliament wear their red hats, overall, gum-boots, aprons to parliamentary sessions

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) members of parliament wear their red hats, overalls, gum-boots, aprons to parliamentary sessions

With the resumption of parliamentary sittings, the question of appropriate dress and conduct, will resume. Imagery, whether through speech, dress, arm, fist or other gestures, has been an important factor in linking people with one another and also indicating separation from others, especially the oppressors. It has been seen in many anti-colonial struggles, notably through Gandhi in India as well as on this continent. It has been a significant feature in South Africa’s liberation struggle, with Nelson Mandela often resorting to specific forms of dress in order to assert his political identity or even multiple identities.

One reason why one of South Africa’s opposition parties; the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF ) has made a powerful impact on public consciousness and on the electorate has been the way it has deployed imagery. It is something that preoccupies the ANC with its continued attempt to mute the EFF’s impact under the guise of concern for decorum and “respect” for institutions like parliament, thereby seeking to stop the EFF wearing certain clothing and instead prescribing “appropriate dress”.

The EFF has understood the significance and power of imagery in a country where colours, dress and forms of address and self-representation, especially those conveying military power, immediately carry meanings with which people align themselves and which may be repulsive to others.

The ANC and SACP are obviously unhappy with the EFF appropriating the colour red, which is associated traditionally with socialism and communism and the blood of workers. It has been possible for the EFF to enter this space easily in the immediate aftermath of Marikana, when an ANC state, supported by the SACP, mowed down workers. It has donned workers’ clothing with awareness that this strikes a positive chord with some amongst the most marginalised, in particular domestic workers. The ANC and SACP have failed to appreciate that to describe this as “inappropriate” dress for parliament may well further alienate them from their own constituency, the poorest of the poor. Indeed, many MPs’ parents were or still are domestic workers or labourers.

The ANC has over time become associated more and more with anti-poor actions and policies. The ANC-led local government often fails to meet basic needs by providing water, sanitation and other essential facilities required for human dignity or where this is provided it is often flawed and done on a basis that is unsustainable. In its response to “service delivery” protests, they often do not listen and negotiate and instead rely on the use of force. It has demonstrated this not only in the Marikana killing itself, but also in the callous response to that massacre and other situations where deaths and injuries have been unlawfully caused.

The EFF has understood how to take advantage of this rupture of the ANC’s connection with its traditional base. It has known what to say and how to express solidarity with grievances of the poor, purely at the level of the idiom they use to articulate this.

It has thus far not tried or been able to match this with concrete plans for remedying the problems. It may well be that the EFF is opportunistic and does not have clear plans for addressing issues that the ANC neglects or towards which the ANC shows indifference. Indeed, the party does not engage intensively with ANC policy interpretation and development and contest its interpretations of the constitution and provide clear alternative ways of addressing pressing needs.

But for the moment signifying solidarity with the oppressed may be interpreted as better than the indifference that is perceived more and more as the stance of the ANC and its allies. That this solidarity may be shown in time to be empty in that it lacks content and realisable strategies and tactics, does not matter for the moment. When one is carrying a load or nursing wounds, one welcomes expressions of sympathy and sharing of one’s pain, even if it is mainly through rhetoric.

The EFF has also understood that in a country that has a history of violence and military actions, both oppressive and liberatory, military imagery also resonates and many people attach value to titles and hierarchies and notions of a leader being called a commander. For many, the imagery associated with MK is important, whether or not MK was able to defeat the SADF on the battlefield.

The imagery of the military commander is one of the emblems of resistance in the history of South Africa, but is also part of the resources that have been drawn on for some time, from a variety of other struggles. After all, some of the great liberation heroes of our time Chris Hani, Samora Machel, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Thomas Sankara were usually clothed in military attire and referred to as commanders.

We must, therefore, acknowledge that the EFF has made an impact through deploying imagery that resonates as well as a defiant language and a discourse of solidarity with the poor. But there is an ambiguity in all these manifestations.

The power of the militaristic imagery may resonate, but it is both anachronistic and dangerous in a democratic order. To celebrate military discourse in a time of peace is not conducive to democratic debate. That is why it was problematic in the year when the 50th anniversary of MK was widely celebrated, little mention was made that 2011 was also the anniversary of Chief Albert Luthuli’s Nobel Peace Prize.

This illustrated the failure to ground non-violence as a value and principle in contemporary South Africa. This converged with growing militarism associated with the rise of Jacob Zuma singing songs like Umshini Wam meaning “bring me my machine gun”. Supporters of Zuma (then including Julius Malema and Zwelinzima Vavi) expressed their readiness, not to die in order to realise freedom like Nelson Mandela, but simply to “kill for Zuma”. Later, the then heads of the police ministry exhorted police to “shoot to kill”.

All of this feeds into a range of problematic features of South African political and militaristic culture in general, where there is impatience with dialogue and readiness to move speedily towards settling issues through the use of force. This is manifested in the political domain where freedom of political organisation is repeatedly impeded by physical power, and differences are settled by violence, including attacks on political opponents. Outside of the ANC, these attacks targeted COPE during the 2009 elections and there have been ongoing attacks and killings of members of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack dwellers movement. But attacks and murders are now, also, alleged to be a significant feature within the ruling party itself.

This is part of a broader problem of militaristic masculinities so much admired in South Africa and responsible for multiple deaths and injuries to women as well as other men. The EFF resonates precisely because it does not break with this dominant patriarchal discourse, but in fact invokes it. Its conservative, rather than radical or revolutionary character is manifested precisely in its willingness – indeed desire – to represent some of the most macho forms of masculinity that are so much a part of the violent character of South African society.

This points to the failure of the EFF to break with this key feature of the Zuma period, its notable hyperpatriarchy. Certainly its programmatic documents speak of non-sexism and opposing homophobia, but it remains to be seen how this is translated into policy.

The EFF does have women in its leadership, but it is a male space. Its metaphors, self-representation and engagements are in the language of masculinity and it is an essentially hierarchical organisation. The valorisation of militaristic pronouncements, representations and organisation is unconducive to thriving debate. As such, we need to be slow in anointing the EFF as a breath of fresh air that could contribute towards reversing the attacks on post- apartheid democracy currently experienced.

For all its stated identification with the poor, the modes of self-representation that the EFF has adopted may in fact prove to be alienating insofar as the militaristic and hierarchical orientation has an ambiguous relationship with that of the dialogic, so much needed for the renewal of the democratic promise in South Africa today.

Raymond Suttner is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA. He is a former ANC underground operative and served over 11 years as a political prisoner and under house arrest. He writes contributions and is interviewed regularly on Creamer Media’s website polity.org.za. His most recent book is Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana Media, 2015). His twitter handle is: @raymondsuttner and he blogs at raymondsuttner.com.

[This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website: polity.org.za]