“All we are asking is that he pay back the money, why are we getting thrown out?” was the question that came from a parliamentary member of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who was identified in a Voice of America news report, as “Female EFF member” on 21 August, the day the EFF chanted “pay back the money”, to a humiliated and ill-looking Jacob Zuma. Right before Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, the EFF spokesperson started chanting, I hoped for a longer exchange between parliamentary speaker, Baleka Mbete, and the “Female EFF member”.
Although visible in their domestic worker attire, the female leaders of the EFF have only been appearing in the background of escapades initiated by their male comrades that have awaken parliament, as a site of political theatre. From Julius Malema accusing the ANC government of the murder in Marikana in his response to the State of the Nation address, to a near fistfight between Andile Mngxitama and Pieter Groenewald of the Freedom Front Plus, to the recent heated exchange between Floyd Shivambu and former Minister Charles Nqakula who called him a “silly boy”.
Not just in parliament, the men of the EFF are unmasking the work of parliament on various platforms. Ndlozi has taken the debate about the use of Die Stem in our national anthem outside the portfolio committee on communications to a broader national audience. Mngxitama, the EFF’s land commissar, has done the same with his audacious open letter to Richard Branson who acquired a vineyard in the Western Cape some months back. It is striking how the big personalities of the EFF men have managed to accommodate each other’s individualism, thus demonstrating that the EFF is not leader-centric in the way that AgangSA was. AgangSA’s public image didn’t extend beyond its leader, Mamphele Ramphela.
Yet, the last public reference to one of the women leaders of the EFF was when Primrose Sonti, an activist from Marikana, was appointed as EFF member of parliament (MP) responsible for the Public Works portfolio. If not to extend on the debates in her portfolio, what does Sonti make of the performance of the Farlam Commission thus far? As someone whose son was initially arrested for the murder and attempted murder of the miners, what does she make of Cyril Ramaphosa’s insistence that South Africans must take “collective responsibility” for the deaths of the miners in Marikana? Why is Sonti silent on these issues?
Magdalene Moonsamy, who’s been described as the “EFF’s secret weapon” is also striking in her silence. The former ANC Youth League spokesperson and current EFF representative for international relations, is perhaps the one woman in the party who I most expected to step into our public space with greater enthusiasm. In 1993, Nelson Mandela wrote, “human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs.” With the Dalai Lama denied a visa to visit South Africa for the third time, what does Moonsamy think South Africa’s role should be in international relations as the country celebrates 20 years of democracy after a global struggle to end apartheid? Sure, she did take to Twitter to tweet at Clayson Monyela, the spokesperson for the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, about the Dalai Lama’s visa, but why isn’t Moonsamy leading us into a public discussion about how to reimagine South Africa’s place in Africa and the world?
Academic and gender specialist, Shireen Hassim recently argued in the Mail & Guardian that the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) has been reduced to a “gatekeeper”. She contends that its role is to ensure that “reliable” ANC women are “appointed to parliamentary committees, government departments and parastatals” for appointments, which are “driven by considerations of party loyalty and political mobility rather than by a track record in gender activism.” In this age, when women’s access to political institutions is reduced to ticking party quota obligations, which gives a small group of elite women political access, to what extent are the women in the EFF offering a different form of participation beyond descriptive representation?
On August 30, the women of the EFF had a gathering for the purpose of “charting the way forward for women in SA”. In its aftermath, there have been no further reports from the EFF about the ways in which the women of the EFF envision championing the interests of women in the legislature and elsewhere. Of course, we also have to ask to what extent the EFF’s organisational culture demonstrates potential for the flourishing of individual women and to what extent this can be harnessed into a collective voice that can reinvigorate women’s participation in party politics.
Is it a coincidence that some promising female voices have already exited the EFF while the male voices are seemingly thriving?
The history of the ANCWL reminds us that South African women’s participation in the national liberation movement stemmed less from the invitation of men. The lack of appreciation of the intersections of gender and economic inequality are evident in the ANC’s performance in government. Hassim points out that part of the ANCWL’s current inadequacy also stems from the fact that the ANC’s constitutional commitment to gender equality is not matched by genuine “political and theoretical leadership” that takes gender seriously.
Has the EFF leadership demonstrated something different besides a rhetorical commitment to gender equality?
For some time Helen Zille and Lindiwe Mazibuko of the Democratic Alliance (DA) offered a possible alternative for what strong opposition party female leadership could look like. It is easy to forget that it was Lindiwe Mazibuko’s bold leadership as DA parliamentary leader that pushed then parliamentary speaker, Max Sisulu, to form a special parliamentary committee to consider the Nkandla Report. This is the kind of clear leadership that is slowly slipping away from the DA under Mmusi Maimane’s leadership.
How do we read the media’s own lack of interest in the actions of the EFF women? There was certainly a lot of fascination with Mazibuko’s manoeuvres in parliament.
When I look at the bravado of the EFF men, I see at work the creation of a new heroic masculinity. These new “heroes” are inviting us to reinvigorate our claims to the nation and to accept the radical choices we will have to make in achieving a greater kind of freedom. Academic and gender specialist from the UK, Elaine Unterhalter in her work, “Heroic Masculinity in South Africa Autobiographical Writing of the Anti-Apartheid Struggle”, reminds us that the trouble with heroic masculinity is that:
“…in the discourse of heroic masculinity women may be un-gendered equal comrades, they may be heroines who inspire, but somehow do not live the struggle. They may be the wounded, or the innocent supportive relatives. In all of these guises they have no autonomy, no different political interests, and no struggle. Their views are always expressed or interpreted by men”
The demise of the ANC Women’s League already alerts us to the dangers of this kind of masculinity. The women of the EFF better have something up their sleeve!