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Remembering Thomas Sankara, the EFF’s Guiding Spirit

Three years is a century in political terms, of course, and now Mngxitama and Malema are seemingly cosy bedfellows in the leadership of the EFF. Mngxitama has already been accused of his own hypocrisies, however. When the EFF officially launched in Marikana last month, it was announced that all their office-bearers would be made to sign the Thomas Sankara Oath, forcing them to use only public services in a tribute to the Burkina Faso leader.

“As a practical indication of my acknowledgement that the only way to ensure that the services I provide are of an acceptable standard, I hereby undertake to use the services that the public sector provides to the people. What is good for me is good for the people,” the oath reads. “I therefore declare that it is a criminal offence to use private services for myself, my family and my dependents, including, but not limited to, education, healthcare, housing and transport.” Mngxitama subsequently responded aggressively on Twitter when quizzed about the fact that his own child allegedly attends a private German school.

The other respect in which Malema et al would do well to closely scrutinise the leadership of Sankara is in the Burkina Faso president’s absolute commitment to the upliftment and equality of women. “The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion,” Sankara said. “It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky.”

In practical terms, Paula Akugizibwe wrote in an excellent recent piece, this meant that “feminism was a core element of political ideology” for Sankara. His government sought to outlaw female genital mutilation, forced marriages – and polygamy. Women were encouraged to return to work and school after bearing children, and Sankara actively sought out women to join both his cabinet and his military. Women were allowed to initiate divorce for the first time. The government also lobbied hard for the use of contraception. Perhaps most innovatively and unusually, in 1984 Sankara organised a day where men were encouraged to take on women’s roles – preparing meals, for instance, and going to the market – in order to personally experience conditions faced by women.

In other words, Sankara didn’t simply rail against violence against women or pay lip service to the need for gender parity. He was, to quote writer Sokari Ekrine, “meticulous in explaining class relations and the everyday ways in which African masculinities work in collaboration with capital in exploiting women’s labour and abuse of their dignity”.

The EFF Manifesto states that the party is against “the oppression of anyone based on their gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation, meaning that we are against patriarchy, sexism, and homophobia in all of its manifestations”. That’s good to hear, because in the past Julius Malema and his fellow EFF leader Floyd Shivambu have at various points displayed blatant sexism.

Floyd Shivambu was sued by City Press journalist Carien Du Plessis for referring to her as a “white bitch”, a case which he settled (calling it a “non-issue) two years later in 2012. “What is it about women that makes [Malema and Shivambu] go mental?”Sipho Hlongwane asked at the time, citing a number of offensive incidents. There was Malema’s reference to Lindiwe Mazibuko as a tea-girl. There was Malema’s description of Helen Zille as “an ugly woman in a blue dress dancing like a monkey”. Malema previously also insulted Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor’s accent.

And of course, Malema also said in 2009 that you could tell whether a woman had been raped by her conduct the next morning, because those who had been raped would never stay for breakfast or ask for taxi money.  His comments in the heat of the Caster Semenya gender controversy also revealed problematic attitudes, suggesting as they did that intersex individuals were unknown to African culture: “In South Africa, in the villages, we only have boys and girls. A child is a boy or a girl,” Malema was reported as saying. “They can argue about this being determined scientifically, but in the villages we don’t see signs, we don’t have laboratories. When a child is born, we open its legs and that is the sign we use.”

Sankara’s legacy is not just about land and nationalisation, then, but also a deeply-held distaste for the personal enrichment of public servants and a deeply-held commitment to true gender equality. His was a rhetoric of dignity, strength, and self-sufficiency – but also tolerance. “Our demand is not to build a world for Blacks alone and against other men,” he told a school in Harlem in 1984. “As Black people, we want to teach other people how to love each other.”


By: Rebecca Davis 

Read more:

  • Revisiting Thomas Sankara, 26 years later, on Pambazuka;
  • “Debt is a cleverly managed reconquest of Africa” – Thomas Sankara, on This is Africa;
  • 7 Thomas Sankara quotes about women, on the MsAfropolitan blog.
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