The EFF and the Anticolonial Struggle

What can students learn from South Africa's fastest-growing political movement?

by Iryumugaba Biko

published April 24, 2020

It has been nearly three decades since Black people in South Africa emerged victorious from the bitter struggle against apartheid through a social movement spearheaded by the African Nation Congress (ANC), the party of Nelson Mandela. Mandela, who spent 27 years in jail for resisting an oppressive racist regime, is remembered for leading a peaceful transition of power from the white Nationalist Party of Fredrik Willem de Klerk of South Africa to the now-centrist ANC by championing a program of unity and reconciliation. However, the impact of Mandela’s decisions has reignited a divisive debate in South Africa over whether he made the right choice by opting for land reform over repatriation during this historic transition. The land reform policy asked millions of Black people to put in more time and labor by filing claims for compensation, and those who had no land had to wait for the government's programs of land redistribution. This is where Mandela made the compromise, for the burden that was to be shared by both Black and White people was left to the Black people. While the security of property ownership was guaranteed for whites—meaning they practically had to do nothing to maintain their properties—who acquired them through colonialism and apartheid systemic displacement, economic freedom relied either on faith and patience or injecting more time and labor for Black South Africans who had undergone 400 years of white terror.

As early as 1995, for instance, people like Dr. Henrik Clarke, professor and pioneer in the creation of Pan-African and African studies, were raising questions about  Mandela and ANC’s land reform. Clarke exclaimed in one of his speeches that he remained “a little less enthusiastic about Nelson Mandela, for he has never asked for land.” Indeed, Nelson Mandela never asked for land. For Clarke, land is the basis of the nation. In making an inventory of nationhood that contains the hopes, aspirations, and dreams of Black people as well, land is of great importance. If land is not available for Black people to cultivate, build on, mine, or rent, how could they flourish in a territory that is economically hostile to them?


That Black South Africans who are indigenous to the African land cannot live in a country that feels foreign to them is what Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) seeks to confront. Colonization was a process of violent cultural and physical confrontation between European settlers and indigenous Black South Africans. The process of economic oppression and displacement created alienation that was characterized by extreme living conditions that undermined the humanity of Black South Africans. It is this alienation that oppresses the ego, that sense of self-satisfaction that inhibits every soul, that EFF deems the root cause of most problems. In the EFF understanding of core problems of South Africa, land is central because it is a marker of justice, the ultimate restoration of African pride. According to Floyd Shivambu, the deputy president of the EFF, “the problem with the ruling party is that they say the problems are inequality, poverty, starvation, and joblessness. But those are the symptoms. The root problem is landlessness.” Mr Floyd’s articulation re-affirms Frantz Fanon’s assertion in his book The Wretched of the Earth that “for a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all dignity.” 

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that some young South Africans claim that Mandela was bought out by Oppenheimer and the South African industrialist and mining magnate, among other white businessmen. Some argue that he sold out because of a sense of hopelessness resulting from his 27 years in prison, while others maintain that the decision he made was intended to preserve the social fabric of South African society. 

The EFF carefully avoids naming Mandela as a “sellout.” The EFF believes that Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Winnie Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Walter Sisulu can fight to a certain point and it is up for the generation to follow to pick up from where they halted. The fact that Mandela’s wisdom and decision are now being questioned, however, reveals the deeply entrenched conditions of economic inequality that have persisted in South Africa until today. White South Africans who only make up 8.9 percent of the population still own 72 percent of the land. The ANC, which had originally promised to redistribute 30 percent of the land within five years, has only redistributed 8 percent after 25 years. In addition to the recent resignation of Jacob Zuma, the former ANC President of South Africa, who was acquitted on charges of corruption and embezzlement of people’s funds, this failure of redistribution only highlights the systemic abuse of power and mismanagement of resources that has plagued the country for decades. This unresponsiveness created a political vacuum that needed to be filled. 


“Expansion is everything,” once said Cecil Rhodes. “I would annex the planet if I could.” Imperialism and colonialism mark what Europeans call “expansionism through discovery.” This expansionism signified different realities for the colonized individuals: invasion and displacement. The economic system that justified ownership and expansionism was private ownership financed by European credit markets in partnership with the European state-financed Catholic missionary. When Christopher Colombus and his successors set in motion a violent pattern that initiated the transatlantic slave trade, and when European leaders met in Berlin in 1884-85 to carve Africa into nations (with a new notion of national sovereignty), they were initiating a process that would create conditions for the expansion of European states. The German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in her book On the Origin of Totalitarianism that imperialism assumes that “without the imperialist expansion for expansion's sake, the world might never have become one. Without the bourgeoisie political device of power for power’s sake, the extent of human strength might never have been discovered.” This logic is at the heart of the logic of imperialism and colonialism. 

The assumption deeply ingrained in this imperialist sense of reality is problematic for two reasons.  First, the doctrine of economic growth is predicated on the idea that future resources are unlimited. How did economics, the discipline created to manage scarce resources, end up with a doctrine that assumes that those resources are unlimited in the future? This is the primary contradiction of imperialism. By trusting that the future will yield more than the present, governments and banks can circulate money that would be made from selling increased production of the future to finance current investment. Financing growth with future resources only keeps nations in permanent states of debt, and the unlimited injection of money into the economy is concerning to say the least.

Second, even if future resources were unlimited, at what point should the expansion of production and property end? The EFF takes a stand against imperialism because this force is responsible for the misery of most South Africans and Africans in general. It is currently embedded in neo-liberal policies put forth by the Reagan and Thatcher cult that emerged in the ruins of the Soviet Union that advocated for less state intervention. This cult was threatening nations of Africa with words like “Privatize or Perish” or “There is no alternative.” This irresponsible economic practice that sought to minimize the role of the state in regulating economic activities has been beneficial for imperialists while condemning the greater majority of poor and oppressed people. The insidious role of imperial power is integral to the occupation and displacement of Palestinians in the West Bank. British imperialists in partership with Zionist forces are also key cases of how this force manifests. The EFF recognizes that to be successful, it must ally with other social movements against the economic and racial injustice perpetrated by global imperialism.

It is also this process of  “expansion” that paved the way for increased European influence and for capitalists like Cecil Rhodes, whose influence remains in De Beers (a company that he founded) and a network of minders such as Lonmin, which has monopolized the network of diamond markets. Cecil Rhodes, the diamond magnate and an ardent believer in British imperialism, was on the forefront of creating colonies that later became nations and reinforced the pattern of exploiting Black South Africans. The mines he annexed are still being controlled by his companies. 


In the context of a lack of accountability and imperial annexation in Africa, particularly in the South, the emergence of the EFF as one of the most dynamic political movements of South Africa—and perhaps even all of Africa—is but a small surprise. The main objective of this Marxist-Leninist-Fanonian political party is to achieve economic freedom for South Africa within a generation. To do this, the group demands the repatriation of land from the white South African minority to the Black majority without compensation and by nationalizing key sectors of the economy such as mining. The policy aims to reflect the demographic representation of the nation. EFF believes it is unjust that Black people comprise more than 80 percent of the population but own less than 20 percent of the land. Moreover, the EFF is determined to fight the monopolization of power and economic resources by white Europeans. 

The struggle for national independence in Africa diminished the power of European direct influence and physical occupation. In many cases, including South Africa, the power moved from the hands of white minorities to political parties founded and run by Africans. This simultaneously took place under the tension of the Cold War where African countries became battle grounds for powerful nations. In South Africa, the struggle lasted even longer, for the ANC attained its victory in 1994. 

Twenty-five years after apartheid, conditions for Black Africans have still not improved, especially in relation to the hopes and sacrifices of freedom fighters who lost their lives to attain this change. Instead, this inaction and oppressive conditions have led to the terrifying growth of political parties and have created a class of African elites who represent the extension of the capitalist financial global system—led by America and other imperialist nations such as Britain, China, and France. 

The EFF understands this power struggle through the Marxist lens of class struggle. The voting base for the EFF is the alienated communities who receive neither adequate political representation nor equitable financial compensation for their labor. Capitalists who control the means of production—such as diamond mines, media, and pharmaceutical companies—continue to exploit workers while undermining their contribution to the success of the company on the whole. Workers are deemed insignificant even after paying with their lives. In 2012, for example, the EFF gained momentum for standing up against the South African government and its attendant police force that shot 34 mine workers dead. 

These workers of the Marikana platinum mine were protesting against Lonmin, a mining company headquartered in London. They were requesting a doubling of their wages from $500 to $1,000. After the South African police fired on the unarmed protesters, the company only increased the workers salaries from $500 to $575. One of the major shareholders of this company is the current president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa. The merging of European capital and exploitative corrupt African elites, as exemplified by Ramaphosa’s involvement in Lonmin, is the dynamic that the EFF seeks to challenge. 

As reflected by the history of South Africa, race also plays a big role in this struggle. The fact that white people in South Africa comprise less than 10 percent of the population yet control almost 80 percent of South Africa’s economy is unacceptable. This continual ownership of property and resources was not shaken by the fall of the apartheid regime. The EFF believes that this racial injustice must be fought. In his book Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon, the psychiatrist and political philosopher from Martinique, contended that “if there is an inferiority complex, it is the outcome of a double process: primarily, economic—subsequently, the internalization—or, better, the epi-dermalization—of this inferiority.” Fanon argues that the economic disparities—rooted in historical colonial practices—create conditions of inferiority for the Black people who internalize them. Because the acquisition of property happened through theft and negligence, correcting injustice necessitates giving the land back to its rightful owners: the Black people of South Africa. 


The EFF movement is led by Julius Malema, a political and economic activist and politician who was once a protegee of Jacob Zuma (whom he later helped impeach) while he was a youth leader in the ANC (which, according to an ANC report, fired him). But the movement is not about Malema; it is made up of a coalition of students and youths across South Africa. 

In a speech at the Oxford Union, the largest and perhaps most famous debating society, Malema was asked whether he should change his message, which many new commentators and Western pundits call radical, to appeal to a broader audience. His response was unexpected. “We won’t change the message,” he said.  “Why change the message that works?” According to Malema, the EFF knows its constituency. Most of Malema’s coalition is made up of youth who were on the forefront of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, a student run organization that originated from Cape Town University, that sought to bring down Cecil Rhodes’s statue on university campuses. Its main goal, beyond removing symbolic statues, was to expose the institutional racism and colonialism in South African higher learning institutions. University students requested that the statue be taken down, for it symbolized the colonial legacy and celebrated the European imagination. The Rhodes Must Fall movement evolved into Fees Must Fall, a movement of students demanding free and decolonial education that challenges the fundamental structural premises upon which their curriculum was based. The majority of the students involved in Fees Must Fall were expelled and about 831 protesters were arrested. But the decolonial work does not end in schools. These social movements and student leaders go beyond university halls; it’s a struggle for life and for the freedom to participate in the economy that they ought to call their own. 

For these students, EFF provides hope in the struggle to liberate the colonized people of the world. Moreover, what draws many students, including myself, to EFF is not only Malema and his militant, charismatic appeal but rather the movement’s ability to articulate the exploitative conditions of the workers and the pressing demands of students. The EFF movement also offers a nuanced articulation of intersecting systems of oppression to the intellectual left. The left must consider EFF as a potential base for its ability to articulate a position that takes into account white supremacy, predatory capitalism, patriarchy, and the demands of youth and the poor, who have been alienated by the white monopoly capital that controls land and capital in South Africa and many other places across the world.

For young political activists today, the question of how to define decolonial movements—and on what frontier of power these movements should focus their energy—remains pressing. As Frantz Fanon once declared, “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it.” With the rising fears, anxiety, and distrust that have accompanied the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant economic meltdown, the expectations are that the world must emerge from this nightmare changed. The EFF offers us a living example of a social movement that situates decolonialism within a crucial economic context.


IRYUMUGABA BIKO B’21 does not believe that “expansion is everything.”