South Africa, Economic Freedom Fighters, and a Monday Shutdown
By Femi Olugbile
It had been in the news for several days, before D-Day, Monday 20th March 2023. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) of South Africa had declared that on this day, there would be a national shutdown. Factories, offices, shops, and schools would shut down, all across South Africa.
The announcement, made on the streets, hallways, malls, and airwaves, often by eager-eyed young South Africans wearing the blood red colour of their party, was reminiscent, in its tone of quietly implied threat, of Simon Ekpa on Radio Biafra, shutting down street and market in Awka and Owerri. The ‘bold and courageous’ people of the Southeast would chafe behind closed doors, at lost time and money, in the knowledge that non-compliance could lead to being shot down in the street by ‘Unknown Gunmen’.
The declaration was a direct challenge, and affront, to the government of South Africa, run by the African National Congress. Without precedent in the troubled history of post-Apartheid South Africa, it would inflict a massive dent on the credibility and authority of Cyril Ramaphosa, if it were to truly succeed.
The EFF was founded about twenty years ago by Julius Malema, a firebrand activist who used to be the Youth Leader of the African National Congress until he was expelled from the position for being too radical. It is the third largest political party in the 90-member National Council of South Africa, as well the 400-member National Assembly. It is not a serious rival to the African National Congress, yet. But what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in flamboyance. Its members, male and female, are often clad in livid red coloured outfits topped with berets. They do not sit quietly in Parliament, or anywhere else. They are intentionally disruptive and disdainful of all authority, defying laid-down procedures of official conduct.
Lately the EFF has set its sights on no less a figure than the President himself. They want him to resign.
There is a lot to criticise about the situation in Mandela’s Rainbow Nation. The Economy is in the doldrums. Unemployment, especially among young black people, is all too common. ESKOM, the electricity behemoth that seemed to be able to meet the needs of the people with aplomb in Apartheid times, looks a shadow of itself. Power outages have become the order of the day. And there are allegations of corruption surrounding members of the ruling party – the ANC, and even the President.
The government tried to assure the public that it was going to be business as usual, and there would be no shutdown in the nation. Police and Army would be out in full force to maintain the peace and ensure that people were able to go about their normal business.
It is several days now, since the ‘shutdown’, and it is reasonable to assess its impact.
According to Malema and his red-clad army, who had ‘commanders’ stationed in major cities across the nation, the ‘Shutdown’ was a roaring success. In their version of the story, people were off the streets, and the malls were ghost-towns. Even the notorious rolling ESKOM blackouts South Africans had become used to did not take place on the day, as no work was going on and the need for power was drastically reduced.
The report from Bloomberg, the international economic news agency, painted a different picture. ‘Radical Opposition’s Bid to Shut Down South Africa Falls Short’, said the Bloomberg headline. Despite hot air and sporadic barricades across streets in some places, 76% of businesses remained open; 70% of these experienced less than 10% absenteeism.
And Cyril Ramaphosa, who had just survived internal wars within the ANC and secured the right to contest, and probably win, the next elections, was staying put in office.
Julius Malema, a young man of boundless courage, described by the press as a radical Marxist-Leninist, is a complicated character with strong, often controversial, and sometimes contradictory views. He advocates land reform and redistribution without compensation to white landowners, because they stole the land from blacks, anyway – a line of thinking similar to the one espoused and practised by the late Zimbabwean strongman, Robert Mugabe. He talks about redistributing the wealth of the nation and is very critical of the slow pace of government empowerment of the black population. His in-your-face rhetoric and style are perceived as threatening by many in the white community.
The harsh economic conditions and the spate of scandals in the Rainbow Nation have increased his mass appeal, not just among unemployed and uneducated youths, but also among the young graduates coming out of universities all across the nation. His street credibility among the black population is beginning to approach what was enjoyed by a younger Cyril Ramaphosa during the harsh, dark days of Apartheid. And Malema is not just reflecting the passions of the street, warts and all. For example, he annoys many of his supporters by opposing the xenophobia that is rife among his fellow South Africans towards other Africans. He is, in fact, an admirer of Nigeria and Nigerians. It is quite possible, bizarrely, that his ‘shutdown’ might have been modelled on the IPOB scaremongering tactic that has rendered some of the most economically productive parts of the Nigerian nation almost unliveable.
There were no ‘unknown gunmen’ taking pot-shots at people going to work in Durban and Johannesburg on Monday the 20th. From the statistics, most people did go to work, some of them walking past angry but peaceful red-clad young black activists. The system held, and soldiers and police were ready to shut down any threat to citizens or public peace. The atmosphere was generally peaceful, though almost a hundred people were arrested.
Was Malema just dipping his toe in the water, to test the temperature and the tactic? Or was there more strong-arm stuff to come from the EFF? The whole world can only wait and watch.