EFF leader Julius Malema. Picture: ALON SKUY​
EFF leader Julius Malema. Picture: ALON SKUY​

Don’t take democracy for granted. That’s the message delivered by US intellectual Robert Kagan in his latest book, The Jungle Grows Back. Looking at Europe and its resurgent populist right today, Kagan presents a pessimistic picture. Importantly, he reminds us that an ascendant liberalism — manifest in democratic constitutionalism — in the decades prior to the World War 2 was easily rolled back.

It can happen again, he warns. There were 26 democracies (mostly in Europe) in 1919 and only 12 had survived by 1939. Sadly, they succumbed without great fanfare. In Poland, a semi-fascist government received two thirds of the popular vote, while in Portugal, Spain, Hungary, the Baltic states, Romania, Italy and Germany, right wing movements captured the government and then abolished democratic forms. In Italy, the democratic government fell to only a few thousand unarmed people who staged a march led by Benito Mussolini — a “part revolutionary, part nationalist reactionary and part opportunistic demagogue” — as Kagan describes him.

In Europe and beyond, the democratic and liberal state is once again under assault. Far right parties are on the ascendant. Liberalism and constitutionalism are denigrated. Only the rich are protected at the expense of the people, goes the argument. We too have a disturbing and growing disrespect for the constitutional deal or settlement of 1994, with populists speaking of a “sell-out”. Even Nelson Mandela is accused of having done the bidding of “white monopoly capital” at the expense of the masses. The very foundations of our rainbow nation — rooted in the constitution — are challenged daily.

Indeed, things began to unravel under the Mbeki administration when, especially in the later years, a shift in language with a hint of racial exclusivism became evident. Subtly — and sometimes not so subtly — a threatening discourse began to blossom, a discourse that defined who was in and who was out. We saw this vividly in anti-Indian and anti-coloured rhetoric, in xenophobic action and in violence against foreigners.

Today the ANC looks kindly upon authoritarian regimes, going so far as to turn to an illiberal China for political education and guidance. Notably, that country’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, has spoken of Western liberalism retarding progress while ignoring “the interests of most citizens”. It was high time, asserted the agency, “for profound reflection on the ills of a doddering democracy which has precipitated so many of the world’s ills and solved so few”.

However, it is the EFF that most threatens our democratic order. The party shares much with the fascists of the last century and today’s far right in Europe — a muscular and integral nationalism; a sense of racial exclusivity; a commitment to destroy political enemies; a wish to re-organise the economy; an authoritarian leadership, a hint of militarism and a penchant for uniform.

It is in fact becoming increasing apparent that EFF leader Julius Malema does not truly respect constitutional democracy. In his concern for cleavages between elites and “the people”, he employs the language of European arch conservatives Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders.

Identity and exclusion inform Malema’s politics. His rhetoric is Africanist in a racist sense. Indians, coloureds and whites are for him marginal at best. In 2010, when he was leader of the ANC Youth League, he made references to “amakula” (a derogatory term for Indians) when addressing a meeting and, more recently, he has described whites as central to SA’s problems. In one of his tirades he even added the qualification “at least not for now” after claiming that blacks were not calling for the slaughter of whites.

“No white person is a rightful owner of land in SA and the whole of the African continent,” he said. As far as he is concerned, whites unhappy with expropriation of land without compensation can “go to hell”.

So much for the deal of 1994.

Clearly Malema’s discourse reflects wider intellectual currents. While his oeuvre is not classically fascist, he shares with fascists an ability to build alliances and co-operate with elites. Political space is, after all, necessary for success. His populism and hostility towards whites finds fertile ground in a society with glaring racial inequality and massive poverty.

The EFF threatens to undermine the rainbow nation — a fragile construction built on a humane and generous forgiveness — on the part of the victims of apartheid.

Will South Africans abandon respect for democratic liberties and non-racialism? We do not know. What we do know is that individual rights, freedom, universality, equality regardless of race or national origin, cosmopolitanism and tolerance are, as Kagan tells us, not the natural order.

“Our belief that peoples at all times share a desire for freedom, and that this universal desire supersedes all others, is an incomplete description of human experience,” he writes.

Democracy is fragile. One would be foolish to assume that SA is immune to its demise.

• Shain is emeritus professor in the University of Cape Town's department of historical studies.