The party’s use of categories defined by apartheid planners blinds it to the realities of class politics, says Jane Duncan.
Durban - As a new political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has generated both excitement and criticism in a short space of time. Its commitment to anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism and Fanonism sets it apart from the gaggle of parties vying for the political centre, and clearly its message has gained traction, especially among the youth.
Much of the media commentary has focused on these aspects of its founding manifesto, especially its position on nationalisation, and some on the left have argued that its progressive credentials have been underrated.
However, there is an aspect of its manifesto that hasn’t received attention, and that is its position on the “national question”, or the question of what it will take to achieve national unity in South Africa. Two decades into democracy, racialised inequality persists, poverty still continues to wear a black, female face, and racism remains pervasive.
This means that while national unity may have been achieved on a formal level, disunity continues to tear at the country’s social fabric.
The dominant conception of non-racialism has failed to deliver a more just and equal society, and the EFF is clearly searching for alternative political concepts and strategies.
The EFF recognises the existence of these social divisions, including among the very working class they intend to organise. Their manifesto argues that the African working class constitute the core of the EFF’s constituency, as they have been the most subjugated and form the bulk of the unemployed.
As for the employed professionals, the economic freedom struggle will give them better access to mortgage and vehicle finance, as well as development finance and enterprise support.
For the EFF, the coloured working class “has often and recurringly been treated with disdain and isolation under apartheid repression and by the post-1994 government”, and that, as a result, all affirmative action legislation should apply to them.
However, for the EFF, what they call the Indian/Asian working class occupies a different relationship to the economic system, as it is “…largely constituted of peasant traders who own small shops and medium shops and enterprises. Their oppression and exploitation is relatively not at the same level as the oppression and exploitation of the African and coloured working class in South Africa”.
The EFF argues that their inclusion as affirmative action beneficiaries “needs thorough reflection and consideration”, implying that their exclusion could be entertained as a serious possibility.
For the EFF, while the white working class do not suffer from the same deprivations as the other “races”, it must be brought to recognise that it, too, stands to benefit from a successful economic freedom struggle.
The EFF’s use of language on this question is telling. It has long been a tradition in sections of the progressive movement to refer to “race” and “racial groupings” in inverted commas.
This is done in recognition of the fact that “race”, as a biological entity, doesn’t actually exist. The anthropological conception of race, where different races are identified according to physical characteristics, has long been debunked, as has the genetic science conception, where race is said to be determined by genetic differences.
These conceptions and their theoretical justifications emerged during the colonial conquests, where colonialists felt they needed “scientific” justifications to subjugate what they considered to be inferior populations. Race ideology and racism provided them with just that.
However, “race” as a social reality certainly does exist, and continues to be used to justify all manner of social ills. The difference between a biological and social conception of race is an important one. If racial differences are social constructs rather than characteristics an individual is born with, then societies can, with some effort and imagination, transform themselves into race-less societies.
But who constructed these “racial differences” and why? In his landmark book of the 1970s, One Azania, One Nation, Neville Alexander argued that African workers became the most subjugated social group, initially not because of the colour of their skins, but because capitalist owners could exploit them more viciously on the pretext that many still retained links – however tenuous – with the pre-capitalist subsistence economy. They then used these links to pay these workers below subsistence wages.
Once the material conditions for colour prejudice had emerged, the apartheid government developed racism into a full-blown ideology to justify this exploitation.
Afrikaner nationalists and liberals found common ground around the belief that South Africa consisted of four “races” and many ethnicities, and this belief allowed them to divide the working class and keep it weak.
This historical background is necessary to understand that the primary problem in South Africa was and is capitalism, and racism became its ideological justification. To blame racism for the country’s ills, past and present, is to confuse the essence of the problem with its appearance. Furthermore, it prevents a proper understanding of what actually caused disadvantage in the first place.
Yet the EFF makes no attempt to define a new conceptual language for South Africa: as Audrey Laude has argued, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. In fact, it would appear that the EFF has accepted the racial categories as defined by the apartheid regime, with all their history of and potential for divisiveness; they have become naturalised.
The EFF’s manifesto contains important contradictions. In spite of its anti-capitalist stance, its position on the national question suggests that it risks substituting one form of racial capitalism with another. Its social analysis of the national question is confused and essentialist, in that it assumes that sections of the working class behave in particular ways because of their “race”.
Its characterisation of the Indian working class is inaccurate, as it ignores the complexity of South African class formation.
The indentured labourers who arrived on South African shores first were, incontestably, part of the working class, as are many of their offspring. Yet the EFF chooses to foreground the merchant traders, who arrived later and of their own free will, as the main representatives of the Indian population. In doing so, they ignore the many attempts to recover the hidden histories of this period.
In addition, this inaccurate analysis risks undoing decades of organised political work to unite workers across “racial” divides. It can be used to fuel the sort of poisonous anti-Indian sentiment, touted by self-serving business interests. Mobilising the working class against itself is divisive in the extreme.
Its unwillingness to rethink affirmative action as a basis for redress is disappointing. Only a fool or a blinkered reactionary would deny the need for redress. But race is an inappropriate basis for redress, as it ignores the many class variations within the various “racial” categories, and entrenches race thinking even more.
Ultimately, it may deepen rather than lessen social inequalities, as it does not aim to remake society and the economy fundamentally.
However, if disadvantage rather than race became the basis for redress, those who are most oppressed and exploited would still benefit, irrespective of the racial categories in which they fell. This approach – which could use measures such as income levels or educational backgrounds – could be much more effective in redistributing resources, and has the added advantage of de-racialising the social formation.
The EFF’s failure to consider alternatives to affirmative action as currently defined means that their politics (perhaps inadvertently) reinforce the racialised agenda of both the black and white capitalist classes. The black capitalist class needs to keep race thinking alive, as this is the main basis on which they can continue to extract rents from the state. The white capitalist class needs to keep this thinking alive to provide socio-cultural justifications for continued inequality.
Although its exact political character is still emerging, there can be little doubt that the EFF is an important addition to the political landscape. However, the fact that they don’t even try to see social relations outside the prism of race, and even reproduce racial stereotypes, is irresponsible and a massive step backwards for progressive politics. Such approaches risk leading South African politics into an airless morass, at the bottom of which lie the putrefied remains of racialised, xenophobic genocides, from Rwanda to Yugoslavia.
* Professor Duncan is the Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society, of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.