Throw in the words “fascist”, “anarchy”, “destruction”, “paramilitary”, and “rebel movement”, group them all in one paragraph to describe a political organisation in South Africa, and you have to wonder if a coup is in progress or imminent. When these words are uttered by the secretary general of the ruling party, not a deranged doomsayer, it could be time to start building bunkers and stocking up on candles and tinned food. Gwede Mantashe says it is time for South Africa to “wake up and smell the coffee” regarding the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Is it possible, though, that Mantashe is trying to make a frappe smell like a macchiato? By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Comparing Julius Malema to Adolf Hitler is more on trend these days in offline discussions between ANC leaders than complaining about negative media coverage. As Malema’s support grew stronger over the past year, so too did the irritation about why ordinary people were falling under his spell and not seeing the similarities with Hitler on his path to destruction.
It was initially the South African Communist Party that summed up Julius Malema’s spectacular comeback in politics through his Economic Freedom Fighters as a fascist project and drew the parallel to the Nazi Party in Germany. Now that the EFF is a fully-fledged political party in Parliament and has penetrated the ANC’s comfort zone, it has become necessary to “contextualise” and “analyse” the party’s agenda. The comparison has now made its way into government and ANC statements, showing that they can no longer wave the EFF away as fringe lunatics.
Two weeks ago, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe was delivering a Mandela Legacy memorial lecture in Pretoria when he presented his assessment of the EFF phenomenon. He said Malema was a “Hitler in the making”, and his strategy of attacking the ANC was complete with a uniform and liberation repertoire the Nazi leader used in his rise to the top.
“He then set the country on fire. That is the way it happens,” Mantashe said. He said that as a result of too many people being taken in by the EFF leader, it was “a tragedy that would eventually take its toll”.
In a debate on the Presidency budget vote in Parliament last week, Deputy Minister Buti Manamela extended the comparison, saying Malema was a dictator in the making. He said EFF members bowed before Malema and he feared that Hitler had “risen from the dead”. The comments resulted in a ruckus in Parliament with fierce objections from the EFF MPs.
Now the warning about the “worrying” EFF agenda has been pronounced from the podium at Albert Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters. Addressing a media briefing on Tuesday following a national working committee (NWC) meeting the previous day, Mantashe said South Africa has witnessed “the entering of a fascist movement into our parliamentary politics”.
“This movement uses uniform to mobilise in the same way that Hitler used brown shirts in 1930s. The worrying factor in this regard is its use of anarchy and destruction as their modus operandi. This anarchy and destruction fits in to the paramilitary content of their strategy, which shows early signs of a rebel movement, designed and calculated to undermine democracy and state institutions.”
Paramilitary? Rebel movement?
Are these terms not usually associated with groups outside the formal political system? They are certainly not frequently used to describe an organisation that contested a democratic election and emerged as the third most popular party with over 6% of the vote.
When asked about his choice of words, Mantashe said rebel movements do not necessarily overthrow governments. “They start with the idea… one unhappy leader breaks off and takes up arms.” He said they first participate in parliamentary politics and when they get unhappy, they go underground.
Probed whether the ANC had information that the EFF was involved in any surreptitious activity to “undermine democracy and state institutions”, Mantashe said the EFF’s agenda was visible in their behaviour and their “revolutionary sounding rhetoric”.
While the EFF was trying to sound revolutionary, its message was hollow, Mantashe said. But this could not be ignored as it could find resonance. “Once it catches fire, anarchy and destruction become the norm,” he said.
Asked also whether the comparison to the Nazis were fair, considering they had killed millions of Jews, Mantashe said: “The Nazis didn’t start by killing Jews. They started by making many promises… They then developed the uniform of brown shirts. Only then did they kill Jews.”
He said the country should “wake up, see the emerging trend and smell the coffee”.
What exactly are we supposed to be smelling, though? Yes, Malema’s combination of charisma, populist rhetoric, militaristic posture and pseudo-revolutionary policy agenda makes him a threat to the status quo. Yes, he is drawing support from disillusioned sections of the ANC. And yes, there are parallels to dangerous characters in history.
Does this make him and his party illegitimate? Does it delegitimise the 1.1 million votes they received in the elections, on which mandate they are acting in Parliament? Does the ANC assessment that Malema is a duplication of one of the most brutal dictators in world history require that some extraordinary method be found to disqualify Malema from participating in South African politics?
More importantly, whom would Malema kill? And why?
It does not seem that the ANC has answers to any of these questions. Mantashe said the party’s national working committee was of the view that the ANC should avoid “stooping to these low levels”. The ANC has a long history in South African politics and confronted a range of opposition political organisations in that time. It has people in its ranks that are quite capable of going toe-to-toe with the EFF, both inside and outside Parliament.
What is notable is that Malema has been consistent on the issues and political positions he is advocating now in the EFF and when he was in the ANC. The difference now is that he has added a layer of ANC critique to his rhetoric. It should also not be forgotten that Malema’s insolence and bravado was useful to the ANC when they needed him to crush their enemies. He was able to say what nobody else in the ANC could articulate and the people who condemn him as a dictator now used to applaud him then. The ANC should confront the fact that Malema was their own product, not some figure that emerged from the ether to mimic a dictator from the previous century.
Perhaps the ANC’s strange reaction to the EFF can be found in the opening paragraph of the NWC statement. Regarding the “massive change” in parliamentary politics, the ANC said this reflects the reconfiguration of the political in society.
“We are seeing two streams of politics; both characterised by religious opposition to any proposal made by the governing party, the African National Congress. Whether the proposal makes sense or not, both the DA (Democratic Alliance) and the EFF have taken a position of adamant and dogmatic opposition to any proposal of the ANC. Indeed their interest is the same – that of delegitimising and weakening the ANC as a liberation movement with the intention to dislodge it.”
The problem in this statement is not how the ANC views the opposition, but how it views itself. Why does it still see itself as a “liberation movement” when it has been governing South Africa for 20 years? If the ANC still believes itself to be fighting an underground war, it is no wonder that it sees demons and “rebel movements” ready to take up arms against it.
The truth is that the EFF’s uniforms and militant speak should not rattle the ANC if it is confident in its mandate and successful in delivering on its promises. There would be no need for people to turn away from the ANC and look for alternatives if they were excelling in their own performance.
But for as long as they are not, it is tempting to look for a bogeyman that can be blamed for “delegitimising and weakening the ANC”. The ANC would be well advised to smell its own coffee before pointing to anyone else’s brew. DM
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