In the Shadow of Apartheid: Race, Radicalism, and Division in South Africa

By Sam Maybee
Correspondent, International Relations and Modern History Undergraduate

Standing atop Table Mountain, you can be forgiven for thinking South Africa has truly emerged into an era of calm after a century of turbulence. The skyscrapers of Cape Town stand gracefully over the azure waters of the Atlantic, the tangle of motorways teeming with ant-like traffic as the vibrant city goes about its day. The odd sense of tranquillity is an artful deception to the gaggle of selfie-stick wielding tourists at the summit though; head down the cable car and into town, to Parliament, and ‘calm’ couldn’t be further away. For all is not well in South African politics- not only is the ruling African National Congress (ANC) tearing itself apart, but a new, more radical force is rising, with potentially ugly consequences for this still young democracy.

A new radical force is rising, with potentially ugly consequences for this still young democracy.

It’s hard to miss the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The party styles itself as a militaristic revolutionary movement; its MPs spurn traditional business dress, instead donning bright red boiler suits and hard hats, to demonstrate solidarity with South African workers. The boiler suits make them stand out in the staid ANC dominated legislature, and so too does their behaviour, orchestrated by “Commander-in-Chief” firebrand former ANC Youth Wing leader Julius Malema. The party has adopted disruptive tactics, using parliamentary points of order to prevent anyone from being able to say much. Take a recent Questions to the President session; EFF MPs successfully stopped President Zuma speaking for over half an hour, complaining about everything from high-level corruption to the operation of parliamentary microphones. Such tactics make any serious scrutiny of the government difficult, but do ensure the EFF punches well above its weight. It has only 6% of seats in the National Assembly, but has successfully taken the mantle as one of the strongest alternatives to the ANC, taking up much of the media coverage of the legislature.

The refusal of the EFF to play by the rules has been hugely successful in getting the party off the ground. Created following a catastrophic fall out between Malema and Zuma, it has successfully increased its vote share in consecutive elections, going from its humble origins at its founding in 2013 to over 8% of the vote in the 2016 local elections. Its position was such that, following the 2016 election, it entered into agreements to prop up opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) administrations in some of the country’s largest municipalities, including Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth). In mining-dominated Limpopo province, the EFF has been able to play on the fallout of industrial unrest and the 2012 Marikana massacre to become the 2nd placed party behind the ANC. This sounds insignificant, but given the ANC’s almost total domination of South African politics since the fall of Apartheid, this represents strong progress for such a young party.

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How did the EFF get to this point? As a young party, the EFF are unconstrained by the competing interests characteristic of the unwieldy electoral coalitions of the ANC and the DA. Whilst by no means a one-man band (several of its MPs have won plaudits for their parliamentary performance), Malema retains a tight grip on the party as its charismatic figurehead, meaning a strong sense of discipline is imposed. The result is that the party has been able, in successive elections, to put out a highly simplistic manifesto, running on a populist platform. The lack of accountability to Malema gives him free reign to propose policies at will, given the EFF had, until 2016, no real base to defend. Consequently, the result is populism in its purest sense, but the EFF’s performance suggests that South Africans are increasingly willing to give it a try.

To some extent, this is unsurprising, given the situation that faces the country at present. After an initial post-Apartheid boom in economic growth and development, the nation has become stuck in an economic quagmire. Unemployment runs at 27%, the highest figure since 2003; of those who are unemployed, 58% have been out of work long-term. Compounding the problem, the economy experienced a mild recession at the beginning of this year, after several years of stagnant growth. Traditional industries have shed huge numbers of workers since the early 1990s; the workforce in the mining sector, one of the powerhouses of the economy, has shrunk by 50% since then. At the same time, the cost of living continues to grow; the CPI inflation index is running at around 5%, contributing to South Africa having, by some measures, the world’s highest rate of inequality.

All of this gives the EFF’s support base of young black South Africans a lot to be angry about- the impact of the economic malaise is still strongly linked to race, even almost 25 years after the end of Apartheid. Unemployment disproportionately affects those who are in low skilled jobs (the graduate unemployment rate is just 7%), who remain overwhelmingly black; data from the national statistical agency shows only a small percentage increase in the number of skilled and semi-skilled blacks since 1994. It is thus understandable that populist promises of redistribution and cheap amenities for all are playing so well- almost half of the EFF’s supporters are aged 18-24, and most have an education reaching only as far as high school. The lack of opportunities available to them thus makes a party aiming to tear up the status quo all too appealing.

Yet the growing success of the EFF does not just lie in the economic malaise, but in political problems also.

Yet the growing success of the EFF does not just lie in the economic malaise, but in political problems also. In the eyes of young South Africans, both of the main parties are increasingly discredited. The ANC has been in power since the first multi-racial election in 1994; it increasingly looks like a party shorn of ideas, clinging to a state-centric development model that has become mired in corruption. As the party of Mandela and the vanguard of the anti-Apartheid movement, it still commands huge amounts of respect, and remains dominant in rural areas. Rampant corruption, however, is prompting an exodus of voters: President Zuma has been embroiled in multiple scandals, including a “security upgrade” of his private residence, and more recently a still-unfolding scandal of awarding state contracts in a way favourable to the Gupta family, a group of South African-Indian tycoons. ANC politics itself is descending into violence, particularly in Kwa-Zulu Natal province (KZN), as the battle over who succeeds Zuma heats up.

The inward turn of the ANC means the actual business of government is being increasingly neglected; its dominant position has bred complacency. None of this offers any hope to the swathes of unemployed people in the townships surrounding metropolitan areas, and has offered easy pickings to Malema, who deploys colourful language to rail against the excess and waste of the ANC government. The weakness of the ANC has, in effect, created a space for a maverick to dominate the headlines and throw fuel to the fire, deepening South Africa’s political woes.

However, Malema’s ability to take such a vocal and central role, despite his party’s small standing in parliament and inexperience in government, has come only because of the failures of the main opposition, the DA. Relative to the dynamic bombast of Malema and his party, the DA looks tired and impotent, despite a good result in the 2016 elections.

Recent developments since then, however, have robbed the party of its effectiveness. The DA have always struggled to overcome the allegation that they are the “whites party”; around 50% of DA voters are white (relative to just 8% of the population at large), with just 20% being black. Despite the landmark election of young black politician Mamusi Maihame to the leadership in 2015, the party has suffered from several unfortunate gaffes that have tarnished efforts to remake its image- most recently with ex-leader Helen Zille tweeting about the benefits of colonialism, a highly sensitive issue given the country’s experience under Apartheid.

Although Malema’s policies are unlikely to be implemented, and populism is hardly unique to South Africa, he is playing with fire in a country whose mood is souring rapidly.

The result is that, particularly among young blacks, Malema has successfully been able to claim the mantle of the ‘real opposition’, given the racial connotations still associated with the DA among the EFF’s target voters. This is deeply problematic for South Africa, particularly as Mandela’s Rainbow Nation vision matures, and memories of Apartheid begin to fade. Although Malema’s policies are unlikely to be implemented, and populism is hardly unique to South Africa, he is playing with fire in a country whose mood is souring rapidly.

The big problem surrounding Malema is his reintroduction of race into an already volatile political mix. The phrase “white monopoly capital” punctuates every speech he makes, and his promise to forcibly remove property from whites without compensation goes down a storm amongst poor urban blacks. Accusing the ANC of being too close to whites is a favourite attack. Most recently, Malema questioned whether Vice President Cyril Ramaphosa (a central figure in the 1980s anti-Apartheid movement) is “black enough” to win state tenders, stating: “he has done everything… to please white people”.

The race issue never disappeared from South African politics after Apartheid, but Malema’s rhetoric has returned it to the forefront of political debate. The popularity of his views is a concern for a country that has such a charged history of racial divide; returning politics to a racial confrontation is likely to lead the democratic state into treacherous waters. The very fact that a party and leader openly intimating a return to racial politics has been able to gain such traction, particularly among the post-Apartheid generation, is indicative of a failure of the political establishment to grasp the mantle of the “Rainbow Nation” and turn rhetoric into reality.

The race issue never disappeared from South African politics after Apartheid, but Malema’s rhetoric has returned it to the forefront of political debate.

The EFF, it must be remembered, still remains a fairly fringe movement. Its ability to sustain itself once the open goal of attacking the Zuma presidency has disappeared is unclear, as is its ability to gain a wide electoral base beyond Limpopo. Yet its rise should be sounding warning bells across South Africa. The complacency of the main parties in ignoring the task of building a new sense of nationhood has prompted such a sense of malaise as to allow the return of the divisive politics that had such tragic consequences in the 20th Century.

Quick action is needed by the established parties to remedy the economic situation and provide something for the army of the unemployed to believe in, to ensure Malema’s ugly politics remain merely a boiler-suited detail of history. The consequences of inaction, given the magnitude of the economic and political situation, are likely to be unpleasant for all South Africans; not because Malema is not ever likely to become president, but because he is reopening space in the political landscape for division and violence. A return to that would be the worst possible end to the hope of the post-Apartheid landscape, and one that, thankfully, is still remote enough to be halted.


Photo credits: Economic Freedom Fighters/Facebook

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