On the EFF and gender
The crucial internal challenge that the party is yet to confront with vigour is gender justice
Four years ago, South Africa was introduced to the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in a press conference that was dominated by a significant majority of Black men wearing red berets. The EFF’s commander in chief, Julius Malema, made a promise: “We will fight against white supremacy and we will fight for restoration of Black African dignity.” Many of those disillusioned with the chosen political direction by the ANC government, which prioritised superficial racial unity without justice for the Black majority, joined the movement. We heard the echoes of our past as it continued to speak. Our past spoke through our material realities, where the faces of poverty continue to be ours, while three white men continue to own the same wealth as the bottom half of the population, according to an Oxfam report.
We became Fighters (publicly and privately).
Since its formation, the EFF has grown to secure its position as the third largest political party in South Africa and the official opposition party in two provinces, the North West and Limpopo. In last year’s local government elections, the party increased its share of votes by 20%.
For us, members of the party, the past few years carry many moments of significance. Remember the celebration we had when our members of Parliament took office and demanded the return of our land, as well as engaging in land occupations? I do. We were satisfied when Primrose Sonti reminded the political elite in Parliament that families of miners murdered by the police in Marikana could not feed themselves, while they lived lavishly. We cheered at our TV screens when Sonti told Jacob Zuma that he was “heartless” and “a thief”. Remember? We also took pride in the fact that the EFF wholeheartedly supported #FeesMustFall.
The mass-based movement continues to grow and, through its media-savvy techniques and political tactics, it captures our national imagination daily. However, the crucial internal and political challenge that the EFF is yet to confront with the same vigour is gender justice. I have spent the past two years looking into the party’s gender discourse for my Master of Arts thesis. Through my research, it became apparent to me that the EFF centres class and race in their theoretical grounding. This theoretical foundation informs the party’s interpretations to structural exclusion facing the Black majority in South Africa, as well as their political programmes and, as we know, there’s a definite connection between theory and practice. By centring race and class systems of oppression in their theoretical outlook, the EFF presents gender oppression as a supplementary factor in their “radical, leftist, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist” character.
The privileging of race and class as the main sources of systematic oppression can be located in the EFF’s chosen ideological grounding of Marxism, Leninism and Fanonism. This has allowed for the EFF to give pedagogical authority to men who failed to speak to the forms of gender oppression experienced by Black South Africans. It has resulted in an ideological vacuum in the party’s approach to structural challenges facing Black women in the country. Marxism, Leninism and Fanonism, as theories developed by men, are inadequate interpretative tools to analyse the systematic forms of oppression experienced by the majority of the population in the country: Black women.
This theoretical limitation in relation to gender has influenced the EFF’s election manifesto and political programmes. After the 2016 local government election, Gender Links gave the EFF a 28% rating on the promotion of gender awareness in their manifesto. The EFF was even surpassed by the ANC, which was rated as the leading political party for promoting gender awareness in their election manifesto, at 44%. Therefore, as the EFF continues to grow, it is my view that the party needs to broaden its ideological footing. That process should begin by looking at and amplifying theories developed by Black and African feminists. In doing so, the EFF will be challenging the “entrenched colonial myths and exclusionary practices that mark African women as persons who dare not imagine themselves as intellectuals and makers of theory – the very stuff that informs both policy and access to critical resources in our societies” (Patricia McFadden). If the party continues to underplay and ignore these theories, it will be ill-equipped to achieve economic freedom for all Black people, especially Black women. Furthermore, it will be unable to dismantle patriarchy and sexism, which it defines as enemies of the revolution envisioned by the party.
Another limitation has been the party’s failure to hold toxic and violent forms of patriarchy accountable within its own ranks. Recently, two of its male student leaders (current and former) were accused of rape, yet there has been no internal political consequence for their actions. Instead, the University of Cape Town’s Students’ Representative Council was the body that provided accountability; they were able to act quickly and they suspending one of the accused from his position until investigations were finalised. Both these accused rapists continue their daily political work for the party with confidence. Furthermore, in the recent leadership elections of the EFF Student Command, some of the women candidates were tormented on social media by men within the party. Black women candidates were called whores and accused of “sleeping with leadership for positions”, instead of these men analysing their political messaging and track record. Again, there have been no disciplinary actions taken against these men. How are these inactions a demonstration of a commitment to anti-sexism by the EFF? Why are toxic forms of masculinity allowed to flourish within the party without any cost?
The face of the party and its leadership have made a significant shift in the last four years. There were only three women present in the pool of men during the EFF’s first press conference. Today it is the leading political party to achieve gender parity, according to Gender Links, in the 2016 local government elections, at 49%. There are provinces like the North West where over 60% of EFF counsellors are women. Although significant, the party’s commitment to gender justice cannot solely be reflected in Black women’s representation in leadership positions within the EFF, and I say this because of the genuine emancipatory project to exist for us.
I appeal to the EFF that gender justice needs to move beyond acquiring balanced numbers.
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POWER POLITICS Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema during a media conference regarding state capture