Malema is not smart enough to be a true fascist
As the prospect of a coalition government at national level in 2024 looms large, a future alliance between the ANC and EFF becomes ever more likely. The actual ideology of the EFF and its leader, Julius Malema, is therefore worth a closer look.
It turns out they share several ideological features with the fascists of the last century. These include a muscular and integral nationalism; a rabid sense of racial exclusivity; a determination to destroy political enemies; the desire for an authoritarian, state-led new order premised on radical economic transformation; a demagogic cult of leadership; and at least a hint of militarism (with a predilection for conferring pseudo-military titles, inciting riots and trashing businesses).
Even the EFF’s penchant for uniform harks back to the Brownshirts of Hitler’s Germany and Blackshirts of Mussolini’s Italy, as does Malema’s racist and redemptive rhetoric. Yet to liken the self-styled “Commander in Chief” and his red-overalled rabble-rousers to the Fuhrer and his storm troopers would constitute hyperbole. Still, as descriptions go, historian Richard Bessel’s characterisation of the Nazis echoes ominously. They were, he wrote, “a band of political gangsters, inspired by a crude racist ideology”.
During these times of populist revolt against liberal democracy, if the fascist helmet (or beret) fits, perhaps the “Fighters” should wear it. Then again, Malema operates in a different context to the European fascists of the 1920s and 1930s. Several planks in his platform set him apart from the interwar fascists. Unlike them, Malema has no irredentist ambitions. He shows no signs of wanting to abolish independent trade unions, for instance, even if the EFF’s “labour desk” is increasingly trying to appropriate some of their functions.
Malema has not undertaken to reorganise the economy along corporatist lines; his promise to nationalise the land, mines, banks and other strategic economic sectors is merely a fig leaf for unbridled looting. Nor does Malema have any apparent wish to create an idealised “new man” — in the manner of Mussolini and Hitler — as part of the project of national rebirth. The gendered aspect of fascist thinking — the antagonism towards feminism and the celebration of traditional feminine roles such as motherhood and home-making — is entirely absent from the EFF’s discourse. For all that, the party’s culture of machismo or “toxic masculinity” is striking.
There is no easy equivalence between the ideology of the EFF and the right-wing totalitarianism of the past. The supporters Malema appeals to are not anxious about modernity or fearful of the Left. Indeed, the EFF leader comes from the Left; at any rate, he claims leftist ideals as part of his intellectual heritage. Schooled in the Marxist-Leninist dogma of the ANC, Malema’s concern is historical injustice. As long as it suits his political objectives, he is comfortable operating within existing state institutions and mobilising support through the ballot box (tactics not unfamiliar to classical fascist movements).
Malema has adapted to parliamentary methods of political engagement. He pays lip service to judicial independence and extols the virtues of a free press and regular elections. But many of the EFF’s constitutional commitments are paper thin: witness the party’s thuggish obstructionism in parliament, its abuse of the Judicial Service Commission and Malema’s crude attacks on chief justice Raymond Zondo, and the physical intimidation of journalists by EFF deputy president Floyd Shivambu and other “commissars”.
The late Karima Brown was bombarded with rape and death threats after Malema publicised her cellphone number on social media. Yet for all these fascist traces it is far from clear that Malema intends to cleanse the country of those deemed not to belong, the untermenschen. That is not to say his genocidal sabre-rattling — reflected in statements such as, “We are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at least for now” — should be casually dismissed.
On balance, then, there is much about Malema that is not fascist, or only superficially fascist. He slots far better into the category of racial nationalist, with populist leanings. Distinctions between left and right matter less to him than the cleavage between elites and “the people”. In exploiting the resentment generated by these divisions, Malema employs the language of France’s Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders. Identity and exclusion shape his politics. Importantly, Malema’s rhetoric is Africanist in a racist sense. Indians, coloureds and whites are for him marginal to nationhood.
Rhetoric of this sort can cement cracks among the black majority and paper over class divisions. It is seductive. National-populist leaders tap into a deep well of discontent. Malema’s appeal to a shared sense of racial grievance among the historically oppressed majority strikes a chord; that is why his political horizons are almost wholly bounded by apartheid’s legacy. Such oratory threatens to undermine the “Rainbow Nation”, a fragile construct built on a humane and generous spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Given our demography and history, this turn to the politics of racial nationalism was perhaps inevitable: the broad-church ANC always had within it a strain of nativism that resisted both liberal nonracialism and the organisational multiracialism adopted by the Congress Alliance. Tolerance of all races was sufficiently deep (thanks in part to the Freedom Charter) to midwife the Rainbow Nation in 1994. But this social contract has gradually unravelled, initially under the administration of Thabo Mbeki.
In the latter years of Mbeki’s presidency there was a shift in the language used to describe the body politic and more than a hint of racial chauvinism. Subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, a more threatening discourse began to blossom in SA. It defined who was in and who was out. We have seen this vividly in anti-Indian and anticoloured rhetoric, in xenophobic statements and violence against foreigners, and in a recrudescent form of identity politics that targets whites (or, less blatantly, the imported nonsense notion of “whiteness”).
Clearly Malema’s discourse reflects some of these wider intellectual currents. He shares none of the innovative thinking associated with serious fascist thinkers of the last century. On the other hand, as was the case with many European fascists, Malema’s political instincts are visceral. He has in common with them an ability to build alliances and co-operate with elites. For the EFF leader, a reverse takeover of the ANC (in league with the “radical economic transformation” faction) may offer the only realistic path to the presidency and spoils of state he so clearly covets.
The possibility of this happening is far from remote; nor would it be surprising. The EFF is the ANC’s wayward child, and it shares the same genetic material as its parent: leftist populism fused with racial nationalism. Malema’s populist promises and hostility towards the nation’s “outsiders” may yet find fertile ground in a society with glaring racial inequality and widespread poverty.
• Shain is emeritus professor in the department of historical studies at the University of Cape Town. Cardo is a DA MP and the party’s shadow employment & labour minister.
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