Founded in July 2013, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) appeared as a compelling alternative in an increasingly stagnant electoral landscape. Rejecting the stale and impotent liberalism of the Democratic Alliance (DA), while calling out the ANC’s shameful betrayal of its historical mission, the EFF stood out as a party that seemed sincere in its solidarity with South Africa’s poor and working-class majority.
Intertwining the political thought of Frantz Fanon with theories advanced by Marxist-Leninism, and prioritising a commitment to pan-Africanism, the EFF aims to conclude the revolution that was deferred 28 years ago and turn economic freedom into a reality through state-led socialism. But ideological consistency and principled leadership are rare among electoral politicians. Like the ANC, the EFF often talks left and walks right.
Suddenly switching their long-held position on land invasions, the EFF recently released a statement condemning what they deemed an illegal occupation of land belonging to the Bapedi Royal House in Limpopo. Not long ago the party’s commander-in-chief, Julius Malema, backed by EFF parliamentarians, was passionately calling for the poor and homeless to occupy land, regardless of the legal consequences. Four years later, the party’s leadership in Limpopo is rebuking a land occupation in defence of a royal family that wants to enhance its unearned privilege by building a palace and shopping mall.
The EFF’s recent attempts to court and actively bolster the legitimacy of South African monarchs is as confusing as it is disappointing. The very socialist revolutionaries idolised by the EFF, such as Thomas Sankara, Che Guevera, Rosa Luxemberg, Kwame Nkrumah and Vladimir Lenin, were not only fiercely opposed to the unjustified power of kings, chiefs and feudal lords but they actively worked to dismantle the economic systems and political institutions which gave such elites dominance over other human beings.
Why has the EFF suddenly diverged from the basic tenets of socialist politics, choosing to embrace a contradiction between their proclaimed political philosophy and actions?
In the years since its founding, it seems that the EFF’s commitment to socialism is increasingly becoming a matter of political expediency and shallow populism. Securing executive power through the ballot box, even at the cost of policy flip-flopping and ideological coherence, seems to be the name of the game for the EFF. Before we dive into the details of the alliance with traditional leaders the EFF is successfully forging, it’s necessary to clarify why socialists around the world have always called for the abolition of monarchy and feudal systems of governance.
Coherent socialist politics is defined by a commitment to radically deepening democracy. Such a commitment means collectively fighting to forge a society in which people have substantial sovereignty over their lives. For the majority of socialists, democracy must be alive within the sphere of politics as it relates to governance and within the management of an economy. Simply put, those who labour to produce the wealth of economies (the workers) must be the true owners and conductors of economic production. In the words of the revolutionary Chris Hani: “As long as the economy is dominated by an unelected, privileged few, the case for socialism will exist.”
On the American slave plantations, the unelected privileged few were slave masters who violently exploited the enslaved, devouring the fruit of their labour for themselves. In feudal Europe, dukes, barons, lords and kings held land in exchange for the labour, rent and political submission of peasants, believing their inhumane exploitation of the peasantry to be justified by the superiority of their lineage, or believing their status was sanctified by God.
Today, this unelected, privileged few are billionaires such as Patrice Motsepe, the Oppenheimer family, Jeff Bezos, Charles Koch, the Ortega family, whose wealth is gained through the private ownership of economic production, the exploitation of workers and the leveraging of vast wealth to shape society in the image of their economic interests.
To overcome the titanic power of monarchs, aristocrats and capitalists, socialists have tried throughout modern history, with varying success and failure, to struggle against two kinds of tyranny: economic exploitation and political oppression.
What the EFF refuses to acknowledge is how traditional leaders have evolved to become a part of the parasitic elite that has plunged the country into catastrophe, using the tools of economic exploitation and political oppression.
The traditional leaders who fought against colonial conquest are long gone but their descendants have not taken up the battle against domination. In the new South Africa, most traditional leaders wield their authority not in defence of those they rule, but in service of their own narrow self-interest.
Bloodlines do not justify political power
The possession and use of power always requires justification. As abstract as it may seem, power is a tangible reality because it is always wielded over other human beings. The powerful can demand capitulation as much as they can impose suffocating control.
If a person or social institution has the power to restrict the freedom of others, and if we consider freedom to be a foundational element to leading a meaningful human life, then that power must be justified. And if the authority of a person or social institution cannot be reasonably justified — morally, ethically, legally — then the power they wield is illegitimate and undeserving of submission.
Unlike democratically appointed leaders, the power possessed by traditional leaders does not derive from the consent of those they govern, nor is their authority based on skill, experience or one’s capabilities in terms of governance. Being a king, queen or chief is merely a result of one’s ancestry entitling you to rule over others.
The notion that there are those born or destined to wield power over others simply because of their ancestry is irrational and archaic.
Democratic forms of governance are not immune to corrupting or authoritarian forces. But hereditary rule is exceptionally vulnerable to abuse and instability because important matters of governance can end up hinging on the whims, wishes and narrow political interests of an individual. The responsibility and privilege of serving others through leadership must be earned, not granted because of bloodlines.
A potent critique of traditional leadership cannot be solely based on principles. We have to ask: what are the tangible consequences of keeping monarchy alive? The reality is that rent-seeking, land dispossession and political repression have become the beloved instruments of traditional leaders unwilling to give up their power in the embrace of democracy.
The Zulu royal family, led by King Misuzulu kaZwelithini, stands tall as a non-sovereign monarchy with significant cultural influence and political leverage on national politics. Speaking at a media briefing in August last year, Malema argued: “We must jealously protect the unity of the Zulu royal family because it’s one of those black institutions that are still run by black people and led by black people and are run in a dignified manner.”
Once again, Malema spreads the myth that those who share a racial identity, in this instance black identity, will have harmonious political interests. This kind of reductive racialised thinking would have us naively believe that institutions exclusively governed by black people will always work towards the benefit of all black people. Such simplistic thinking overlooks the profound socio-economic divisions among black South Africans, which mould political interests in divergent directions, be it progressive or reactionary.
The class position of the royal family relative to the majority of their “subjects” means that their interests — to maintain their entitlement to power and privilege through semi-feudalism — are often in direct conflict with the interests of KwaZulu-Natal’s general population. In a province continually ravaged by rampant poverty, food insecurity, political violence and climate disasters, the House of Zulu has not used its extravagant wealth to strive for the socio-economic development of the province or the betterment of their “subjects’” material well-being. Instead, the Zulu monarchy has for years used their constitutional position and political influence to economically exploit those within their domain.
The Ingonyama Trust, established as a compromise between political elites, has functioned as an instrument of grand economic exploitation. It is a fund used to manage communal land, supposedly towards the well-being of citizens.
Three million hectares of land fall under the trust, representing 30% of all land in the province, and the Zulu king is the sole trustee. Rather than being a tool for socio-economic development, the Ingonyama Trust has disempowered citizens who live in its domain, restricting people from holding titles to the land of their ancestors. One wonders how the EFF justifies a king, unelected and supremely privileged, to act as the sole trustee of such an influential entity.
The Ingonyama Trust Board has a huge operating budget of just under R100 million and according to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group, the trust itself gathered a total revenue of R189 786 547 in the 2019-20 financial year. A significant source of revenue for the trust is rental income, largely resulting from the board in 2012 deciding to turn permission-to-occupy certificates into long-term rental and lease agreements, without the informed consent of their new “tenants”.
The provincial government has given the Zulu crown the power to extract wealth from the destitute who are already suffocating because of the chokehold of our stagnant, inhospitable economy. The prices of rent and lease agreement dictated by the trust range from R1 500 to R7 000, in a province where 60% of the population live in poverty.
Beyond the enormous sums of revenue generated from rent-seeking, the Zulu royal family has wealth provided by the provincial government. The royal house unit tasked with taking care of the needs of the Zulu crown has been given a budget of R79 million, a R12 million increase from 2022.
Resistance to the rent-seeking of the Ingonyama Trust and Zulu crown did not emanate from outsiders, but rather from the Rural Women’s Movement, which challenged the trust’s decision in court. Not only did these brave women object to the commodification of their ancestral lands, they highlighted the patriarchal standards enforced by the Ingonyama Trust, which denied women the right to sign lease agreements and required them to find a male relative to sign on their behalf. Moreover, the court case exposed how traditional leaders, acting under the authority of the Zulu crown and Ingonyama Trust, abused their unearned power through the forced eviction and selling of land alongside properties that belonged to female rural residents.
Justice prevailed when, in July 2021, the Pietermaritzburg high court declared the “land lease programme imposed by the trust’s board in 2012 as unlawful and an infringement on the residents’ constitutional rights”. Compounding this order, judges ordered that the Ingonyama Trust pay back the millions of rands collected from those who had been paying rent since the launch of the lease programme.
The EFF claims to be an organisation embodying a radical conception of democracy and yet it actively supports an institution that is founded on fundamentally undemocratic principles. Malema claims to champion the cause of the poor, unemployed and working-class Africa, while his party provides public support to monarchies that abuse, exploit and oppress the rights of rural citizens.
One constantly hears EFF leadership speak with zeal on the injustice of wealth inequality and the need to reclaim the economy on behalf of millions who are destitute. Yet the same party fighting for economic freedom defends the gross opulence of monarchies whose wealth is a product of the poverty of those they rule and unjustified government welfare.
Until South Africans unlock the radical potential of democracy, by demanding political and economic sovereignty over our lives, the country will continue to be governed by destructive, self-serving elites. And parties such as the EFF that are eager to collaborate with such elites merely for the sake of votes, no longer seem to be a vehicle for profound transformative change.
Andile Zulu is with the Alternative Information and Development Centre in Cape Town. He writes in his personal capacity.
*This Opinion Piece was first published by the Mail & Guardian.