Why South Africa cannot afford to ignore the EFF indefinitely?

2013-10-03 20:37

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is composed of a bunch of losers and malcontents. The EFF is broke and cannot win elections. Malema, the head of the EFF, is a danger. And so goes the narrative as long as we feel justified in our vilification. Can informed South Africans afford to allow this vilification to unproblematically marginalize the EFF indefinitely?

If the EFF is so bad, why on earth are so many people identifying with or joining it? These perceived malcontent land-grabbing fellows might not be all right in their claims but can they be all wrong in their cause? How has Malema turned their grievances into opportunities? What might happen next if we keep ignoring them?

Africa has gone through such a metamorphosis in the last two decades that today, it is difficult to tell whether the continent is heading towards a positive or negative direction. The optimistic position indicates that Africa is rising while the pessimistic position maintains that Africa is not rising. Between the two positions stands the critical position that asks: If Africa is rising, who benefits? Pundits and policymakers, in a survey conducted by Foreign Policy in 2013 with more than 60 participants, prefer to remain in the grey.

In this market of opinion, the balance is difficult to establish. It depends on whether you look at Africa as a land of resources without people or a land of resources with people.

An important theme that cuts across all the different positions is the story of the heightened social crises as evidenced by a number of recent popular protests that run through virtually every country in Africa.

Popular protests and dissents, to be candid, are part of a much deeper social malaise that needs adequate attention. Current literature indicates that thanks to neoliberal globalization, several African countries have, over the past decade, made laudable efforts towards the UN millennium development goal. At the same time, there are also reports that millions of people are still living in abject poverty, some entrenched in internecine wars, and others have no access to adequate healthcare as well as sanitation and housing.

To add insult to injury, several countries have seen the cost of living rising while the wages of the ordinary citizens have remained almost stagnant. Moreover, there are also reports of forced evictions from some already precarious homes in countries like Kenya, Nigeria and Chad. The story of evictions is too common on the streets of Johannesburg to warrant any further description here.

Another final nail in the coffin is how African leaders handle political dissents and opposition groups. In Sudan, protesters are met with volleys of hellfire. Chad is one of the few 'democracies' in the world where even peaceful demonstrations are prohibited. In Egypt, authorities have vowed that any demonstrator on the street shall be prosecuted (persecuted might be a better word choice here). Following the recent Egyptian uprising, hundreds of people died in the hands of security services. Even in South Africa (SA), the Marikana massacre in 2012 remains a source of constant shame.

Why do such tragedies have to happen before we acknowledge we have a problem that requires attention? How many more canaries will have to die before we realize we have to change course?

Coming home to SA, I wish to caution that those who look down on the EFF today might regret tomorrow. Let me establish from the onset that I am neither a member nor a sympathizer of EFF. Perhaps the only commonalty I share with EFF is my genuine concern for the current leadership deficit.

The EFF, I believe,  is best read as an embodiment of individuals who are convinced that change in leadership in SA is needed and that they are here to bring about such a change. That their members are ready to sacrifice their personal belongings for the cause of such political conviction as evidenced by Esethu’s recent article, is a sure sign that these popularly dubbed malcontents are determined to make history.

How this history will be made depends on how we treat them. The annals of history are here to remind us, however,  that notorious historic figures like Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy rose to fame in the twilight of widespread unaddressed social grievances. Let those who think that groups like EFF can be vilified and neglected indefinitely take heed. We may not like the cause that they defend, but attempts to marginalize them by the time they are gathering momentum might create the conditions for our own demise.

The signature irony is that those who demonize the EFF, for instance, are the same people who also say they do not want SA to become another Zimbabwe. Fair enough. These people, I invite to take a retrospective look at Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe did not descend in the current chaos overnight. It took a long series of unaddressed grievances that finally culminated into the tragedy the country is experiencing. Ultimately, Robert Mugabe with his ZANUPF cronies ended up exploiting the situation in a bid to consolidate their grip on power. Is SA heading towards the same direction?

It is about time we realized that our treatment of marginal groups in our societies is part of the problems, not solutions to our social crises.

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