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The Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) ‘national shutdown’ last week seemed to show no viable solutions. While it succeeded in causing some businesses to close and dominating media coverage, it failed to gain public support or have any significant impact. Critics of the EFF condemned the event as ineffective, but its political positioning means the party can still see it as a success. The shutdown was directed at the ANC and the government and cannot be separated from the memories of the 2021 riots. While some sympathised with the demands of the EFF, many South Africans were more concerned about law and order. Read more in the article below, first published on Daily Friend.
No solutions on display last week – and not only in the shutdown
By Terence Corrigan
The Economic Freedom Fighters’ ‘national shutdown’ last week brought out modest numbers of people, intimidated some businesses into closing and gave the EFF an outsized presence in media coverage and in the public mind. It invited the condemnation of its detractors. All of the latter is intrinsic to the party’s political positioning, so it can clock this up as a win of sorts.
And this was indeed how the party tried to spin it.
But it was a tepid, uninspiring event. Whatever successes it might have claimed owed less to enthusiasm than to fear of public disorder and the predictable impact of choosing to ‘shutdown’ on a day sandwiched between a weekend and a public holiday.
The shutdown attracted very little sympathy in public comment, and its failure was received with a mixture of relief, celebration and ridicule.
‘Courts, cops, private security and civil society put a halt to the EFF’s politics of violent insurrection’ headlined a piece by Ferial Haffajee. Daily Maverick’s Rebecca Davis called it a ‘national fizzle’ and the Institute’s John Endres described it as a ‘damp squib’. News24’s Qaanitah Hunter wrote that ‘South Africans shut down EFF’s “shutdown”’. Academic Imraan Baccus referred to ‘Malema’s day of humiliation’.
The ANC and the government – against whom the shutdown was most pointedly directed – went into attack mode. The party’s Secretary General Fikile Mbalula beamed to the media that the shutdown had ‘dismally failed’. ‘When the CIC [EFF ‘Commander-in-Chief’, Julius Malema] calls for a shutdown, South Africa will respond. South Africa showed him a big no,’ he said.
Minister in the Presidency, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, remarked: ‘The EFF tried to blame government for their own flop. It is because they are not popular. If they are popular, they would have waited for elections.’
The ANC put out a statement saying: ‘In South Africa there is no place or tolerance for vigilantism and forceful removal of an incumbent government. The ANC is fully committed to doing what the people of South Africa expect, demand, and deserve. The ANC acknowledges that everyone has the right to protest, and in line with the rule of law, all protest actions must be lawful. According to the Bill of Rights enshrined in our Constitution, no person or grouping may engage in an illegal protest action or impose their protest action on everyone who does not support it.’
The ’national shutdown’ cannot be divorced from the memory of the riots in 2021. For much of the country, this was a real shutdown, along with 354 deaths, and the sort of nightmare scenario made possible by the failure of the state and systemic debasement of South Africa’s politics. It was a combustible combination of deprivation, incitement by political actors – and not just from the fringes of politics, but from within the ruling party – and the inability or unwillingness of state agencies to intervene effectively. It demonstrated just how vulnerable ordinary people were. Worse, in fact, than the standard insecurity that afflicted everyday life in the country.
Last week’s shutdown raised the spectre of a repeat of this. It was probably never a serious threat, but one front of mind for a stressed population. And one encouraged by some within the EFF: a clip circulated on social media showing an activist declaring: ‘We are saying to you close down all your businesses to avoid the looting. Close down all your shops to avoid the looting. Close down all your factories to avoid the looting.’
Still, opposition to the shutdown said something important about the orientation of ordinary South Africans. They had little appetite for disruption or for sacrificing a day’s income to make a political point, or for ‘revolutionary’ activism – even if there may have been some sympathy for the demands.
It was also interesting that the government seemed to have had some success in signalling its intention to maintain order. Lawlessness ‘will not be tolerated’, it said. The army was deployed – a matter of concern in itself, but a potent deterrent to potential mob violence nonetheless. Thousands of tyres (suspected to being the means to block trafficways) were confiscated in the run-up to the event, and ‘more than 550’ people were arrested. That latter figure is around 10% of the number reportedly arrested during the mayhem of the 2021 riots.
Yet the shutdown also highlighted (or perhaps echoed) the troubling realities of South African politics.
The most obvious is that the issues around which the EFF was campaigning were real. Loadshedding, the cost of living and so on are all matters that gnaw at people’s lives. It would be fair to say that whatever specific issues were flagged, the shutdown was a portmanteau event where one could vent grievances about the shameful state of the country. It’s important not to lose sight of this.
Similarly, the shutdown reflected another long-standing constant in South Africa: the assumption that political activism is a necessary solution. As the EFF put it: ‘We can only rescue our country from complete collapse on the picket lines.’
This is an attitude that has been hardwired into the country’s politics, quite understandably as part of the twin legacies of the liberation struggle and the trade unionism that accompanied it. It’s never been superseded in the African National Congress, even though the party has been in government for nearly three decades.
‘Militant’ protest action remains a part of the ANC’s culture, but its more enduring legacy has been the enduring primacy of politics in approaching South Africa’s difficulties.
South Africa has had decades of trying to force economic decisions into political paradigms. Race-based ‘empowerment’ policy for example, tried to arrange spending and investment along demographic patterns – something that would be difficult under ideal conditions, but is pretty much impossible in a low-growth environment. Firms would be pressured (and increasingly penalised for failing) to align their staff profiles to demographic prescriptions – even while the education system failed deliver the skills required, and while anaemic economic performance could not expand the pool of employment.
South Africa’s agricultural sector – globally competitive despite the difficulty conditions in which it finds itself – is seen not as an ally and partner, but effectively as a problem. ‘The Land Question’ as an historical grievance looms large over the much more immediate issue of rural development. The tragedy here is that a productive land reform programme would be an eminently doable task in which established farmers should be an asset.
In particular, ‘we must create jobs’ has become a national mantra, as though jobs are free-standing entities that might be willed into existence or engineered through sophisticated documents. Seldom does one encounter serious recognition that jobs are the outgrowth of firms making a profit by providing the good and services that their customers need.
Indeed, the demand for President Ramaphosa to resign is one that some South Africans might sympathise with (though polling gives him a degree of popularity); but be under no illusion that his incumbency in (or absence from) the Union Buildings – or Mahlamba Ndlopfu, which attracted the EFF’s attention – is unlikely to have a great deal of bearing on the problems.
Read more: SLR: The deluded fantasy of ANC RET / EFF
Better national condition
South Africa will not protest or politick itself out of problems that require an altogether better national condition – something which Brian Pottinger memorably descried as a higher plane of modernity. This is what the EFF was offering. It is, unfortunately, also not dissimilar from what the ANC in government offers at present.
The political capture (blending inevitably into criminal capture) of what should be a professionally-managed and meritocratically-constituted state and corresponding public entities lies at the root of the current malaise; more to the point, the dogged attachment to bad ideas has meant that the necessary turnarounds have not been forthcoming. The imperatives of doing so notwithstanding, substantive policy changes are simply an intellectual and emotional bridge too far.
At times, this creates its own ironies. President Ramaphosa spoke last week of the centrality of the rule of law to South Africa’s constitutional order. He is of course correct. Yet his party has systematically undermined this through its illegal cadre deployment programme, which has done a great deal to undermine the state and lead South Africa to its current crisis. Indeed, the politicisation of the intelligence and security services and the party’s factional disputes – manifesting in the state – were flagged by the official enquiry into the 2021 riots as a grave threat to the country. The Zondo Commission fingered cadre deployment as central to corruption.
Yet the President’s response is to dig in and defend it, promising only (vaguely) to do it better. It can’t be done better. But from the ANC’s vantage point, the more important consideration is that it can’t be done away with. It’s a safe bet that this would be the stance of an incumbent EFF too.
And in a sense, the EFF is obliquely correct on one point. As this column has previously argued, South Africa’s problems need solutions grounded in technical capacity and competence in governance. This will only be possible when the politics around them are appropriately ordered. But neither those who tried ‘shutting down’ the economy, nor those in control of political power at present have a solution.
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