As the votes are being counted in South Africa, Matthias Pauwels takes a look at the style and symbolism of one of the country’s most visually arresting parties – on course to secure around 10% of the vote – and asks what it tells us about its politics.
For weeks the red campaign posters of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party have been omnipresent in South Africa’s streetscape. Most feature its smiling leader, Julius Malema, wearing his trademark red beret. The image is accompanied by the slogan “Son of the Soil”.
In the 2014 general elections, the EFF became the third largest party in the country. It garnered just over 6% of the vote. The EFF’s approach certainly seems to have appealed to a segment of South Africa’s voters. Early results from the country’s 2019 national elections suggest that the party increased its overall share by a few percentage points.
Since 2014 its salient features – from its authoritarian organisation and challenges of democratic procedure in parliament, to ultra-nationalism, xenophobia and strong-arm tactics – have led commentators such as Prince Mashele, Gareth van Onselen and Ismail Lagardien, to characterise the EFF as a fascist, rather than democratic party.
An often mentioned feature of the EFF is its adoption of a quasi-military party aesthetics. Its dress code consists of red berets and other faux military gear. Its organisational names include “commander-in-chief”, “ground forces”, “military wing” and “student command”.
In addition, songs and dances from the days of the armed struggle against apartheid feature prominently in the party’s rallies. This is not uncommon for political parties previously involved in the anti-apartheid struggle. In rallies of the African National Congress (ANC), for instance, its Umkhonto weSizwe veterans often perform a few routines. However, it would be unimaginable for the ANC’s leaders, such as its president Cyril Ramaphosa, say, to fire machine guns at rallies – as Malema recently did.
In my view the EFF’s militarised aesthetic is more than a sideshow or blast from the past. It forms a key part of its highly performative, symbolic and spectacle-oriented brand of politics.
My current research focuses on the entanglements of aesthetics and politics in the South African “postcolony”. It studies the prominent presence of politics in contemporary art practices. It also looks at the role of artistic and cultural contestation in movements such as #RhodesMustFall.
The EFF is a fascinating case because, of all political parties, its aesthetic dimension is most pronounced. It serves both key symbolic and instrumental purposes. In analysing and making sense of the EFF, I take its militarised aesthetic to be as important as its manifestos, speeches, press releases and policy proposals. It reveals both what the party stands for, as well as the reasons for its strong appeal to some, and its repulsiveness to others.
The EFF’s militarised aesthetics serve multiple purposes.
First off, its self-stylisation as a present-day liberation army enacts its core stance. This is that despite the end of the apartheid regime, the struggle for South Africa’s liberation is far from complete.
Second, it dramatises the EFF’s self-positioning as a breakaway party of the ANC. Its military antics serve as an indictment of the ANC’s alleged betrayal of the liberation struggle.
Third, its reenactment of the struggle days satisfies a longing for simpler times with a clearer enemy and more straightforward courses of action: to nationalise, to fight and “take back”.
Fourth, a militarised aesthetics aggrandises a party that, after all, represents only a minority of South Africans. The spectacle of 100 uniformly dressed EFF supporters marching with party flags creates the illusion of a vast army of freedom fighters across South Africa, ready to mobilise at a moment’s notice.
Fifth, a militarised party culture is an effective way to deal with the organisational challenges of a political start-up. It serves to quell internal dissent. It makes everyone tow the party line and maintains tight control over party structures.
Lastly, militarisation evokes an acute sense of being under siege by hostile forces out to destroy the party.
The performance of militarisation has had many precedents in the history of black resistance movements. In the US, for instance, it was common in organisations ranging from Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and the Nation of Islam, to the Black Panthers and rap band Public Enemy.
A militarised aesthetic doesn’t in itself imply fascist leanings. It can signify different things. It can have different aims or effects. It can serve to demonstrate self-discipline and organisational capacity, or a readiness to defend oneself forcefully when unfairly attacked.
For example, the inclusion in the EFF’s logo of the raised fist as a symbol of the black power movement invites comparisons with the Black Panthers Party. Active in the 1960s and 1970s, the party’s paramilitary dress code of leather jackets and black berets as well as the demonstrative waving of rifles, were key to their campaign of armed self-defence against routine police violence against African Americans.
Similarly, the EFF’s military aesthetic can be understood as a declaration of intended self-defence on behalf of South Africa’s workers and poor.
One may question, however, whether the EFF’s military aesthetic is not merely cosmetic given the party leaders’ widely reported indulgence in luxury lifestyles.
Rather than a blatant contradiction, the demonstrative display of material wealth can be seen as an enactment of the party’s central ideological argument. Namely, that only by acquiring economic independence will the impoverished black majority be able to attain true political freedom and social emancipation.
An aesthetic of conspicuous consumption can therefore be seen as equally essential to the EFF as its aesthetics of militant socialism.