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Inequality spurs a leftist uprising in South Africa

Economic Freedom Fighters Leader Julius Malema, top, has compared the ANC and its economic policies with the apartheid regime.

Themba Hadebe/AP

Twenty years after South Africa's liberation from the shackles of apartheid, Musa Novela scoffs angrily at the romantic notion that the black majority has triumphed over racism and injustice.

"The struggle wasn't about being able to marry white people or go to the bathroom with white people," he says. "The struggle was about the land. And the land is still not in the hands of the people."

Mr. Novela, 28, is one of the thousands of ordinary South Africans who have joined a new radical left-wing party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which threatens to shake up the country's politics. With its revolutionary promises and its big campaign rallies across South Africa, the new party could pose a serious challenge to the future of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

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While the EFF has little chance of winning South Africa's national elections next week – polls suggest it will finish in third place, with perhaps 5 per cent of the vote – its emergence is a sign of growing discontent with the persistently high rate of unemployment and poverty in the postapartheid society. Those rumblings of discontent are a foreshadowing of forces that could eventually topple the ANC in elections down the road.

The ANC, the liberation movement of Nelson Mandela and other heroes, has never quite fulfilled the left-wing promises that helped bring it to power in 1994. Instead it has awkwardly straddled the line between socialist rhetoric and pro-business policies, trying to reassure the foreign investors and major corporations that could have fled after the ANC took office.

While polls predict that the ANC will win another majority in the May 7 election, the party is increasingly under attack from disenchanted South Africans who expected a more aggressive policy of redistributing wealth and land after the death of apartheid.

In its early years in power, the ANC set a target of transferring 30 per cent of South Africa's agricultural land to the black majority. But it refused to confiscate the farmland, preferring to negotiate deals with willing sellers. As a result, only an estimated 7 per cent of farmland is owned by blacks today.

The ruling party has also rejected calls for the nationalization of big mining companies and banks – another key promise of the EFF party, which is led by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, a firebrand who gained national fame for his nationalization demands.

"The ANC has failed dismally," says Mr. Novela, wearing the trademark red T-shirt and beret of the EFF, inspired by Che Guevara and other Marxist revolutionaries.

"There are a lot of similarities between the ANC and the apartheid regime," he said at an EFF protest march on Tuesday.

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"The apartheid regime used to strangle our people with racist policies, and now the ANC is strangling people with its economic policies. They are all in favour of big business, protecting big business to make big profits, while the people get poorer and poorer."

The left-wing challenge goes beyond the EFF. The traditionally pro-ANC trade-union movement has splintered, with some unions becoming more radical – a trend that has sparked a wave of labour unrest in recent years, including a devastating strike by platinum miners that is now in its 14th week with no end in sight.

Even within the ANC, there is rising discontent from its leftist factions. Ben Turok, an 86-year-old former communist who has served as an ANC member of parliament for nearly 20 years, this month published a scathing critique of how the ruling party has drifted away from its ideals.

Mr. Turok helped to draft the 1955 Freedom Charter, one of the touchstones of ANC historical principles, which called for South Africa's national wealth to be "restored to the people." But today, he says, the ANC is in disarray and confusion.

"There is a pervasive sense of disappointment with the character of the ANC today, its loss of direction and the slippage from its historical mission," Mr. Turok writes in his new memoir.

Instead of fulfilling its progressive economic ideals, he says, the former liberation movement has fallen prey to "careerism, patronage, corruption and the abuse of power."

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Many of the ANC's members have displayed "greed" and "a new spirit of acquisitiveness," he says.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More


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