Last week I responded on Twitter to the public debate on privatisation of state-owned enterprises by making two distinct remarks; first, there is a need to stand firm against rogues and State Capturers who oppose privatisation because it heralds an end to their looting; and second, we must remain sceptical of conservative ideologues who see privatisation as a panacea for all economic ills. What was needed, I held, was a set of heterodox economic policy solutions that would establish an appropriate balance between enabling growth and addressing inequality.
My first statement unleashed a Twitter storm from ANC activists in the Zuma faction and those in the EFF, quickly masking the substance and nuance of the argument.
Here is a sample of the comments:
Old Man you are having too much Briyani & hallucinating in broad day light! @Sgidi_Sompisi
You know you’re not truthful. Honesty is virtue. You deliberately twist facts to continue to benefit your fellow looters WMC. Most indian people have no qualms re: cheating & enslavement of Africans. Check out Pravin’s arrogance. Apparently Ghandi was racist. @maria_lebo
It is said that Europeans and Indians that we never asked them to come Africa are telling us that we are incompetent. Leave Africa by going back to where you belong. @SizweHa11481894
He makes me to start questioning his qualifications… as we know 8f one Indian becomes a doctor all 9 siblings will be doctors by forge qualification. @lurh_khaba @Zulugal_Fire
Udakiwe wena, you are just diverting the failures of your Indian cabal brother by mentioning Zuma’s name. Get a life. @Afrikan_Dream
That man is the worst shit to have ever walked this earth. Which hand does he use to wipe his chilly shithole ? @son_kenzie
Go back to Bombay. @jabulane_r
You should go back to India and talk your nonsense there. @readsaywrite
You truly possessed by demons. You spew nothing but Satan fire from that smelling rotten mouth. @Japtha17270837
So says the stupid professor from Bangladesh, foot soldier of Jamnadas. @mnguni4cde
Such racist and ageist commentary is not unique to my Twitter account. Indeed it is common to many of the accounts of critics of the EFF and the Zuma faction. Women journalists who have exposed the corruption and hypocrisy of the political leaders of these parties and factions have received even more scurrilous, misogynistic and threatening messages.
A cursory investigation into the Twitter accounts of these individuals reveals that they are either members of the EFF or ANC (aligned to the Zuma faction) or they at least profess to be their supporters. It is striking that neither Malema, Shivambu, Magashule nor Zuma have ever formally reprimanded these individuals or strongly disassociated themselves from these remarks. Indeed, they have instead manipulatively used these Twitter trolls as political attack dogs to silence and intimidate critics. This then is the real political underbelly of the EFF and the Zuma faction of the ANC.
At the core of the political project of the EFF and the Zuma faction of the ANC is crude nativism manifested in virulent racism, and even sometimes in a retreat into one or other version of ethnic traditionalism. Yet the problem is not only in the manifest examples of racism of these political actors. It is also in the militarism, complacency about violence, and the valorisation of the individual leader, all of which when coupled with the nativism essentially transforms these beliefs and behaviour into a fascist political project.
The most dramatic symbolic display of this fascism was at the EFF conference when a large group of delegates sang and kneeled in front of the professed commander-in-chief. He, of course, disassociated himself from this behaviour, but his actions as leader of the party, including his fondness for spectacle and invoking of violent imagery, essentially created the party script for such behaviour. A number of commentators have of course warned about the fascist dimensions of the EFF for some time now, yet it has not made much difference in the way political parties, some public intellectuals and we as a society have responded to the emergence of this threat to our democratic foundations.
It is worth noting that the increasingly crude racism in our public discourse has coincided with or paralleled the rise of Zuma in the ANC and the EFF in South Africa. Indeed, the last time South Africa experienced this kind of crude racism in its public discourse was in the heyday of apartheid when the AWB was still a significant feature of our political system. This kind of thinking is also of course vintage Verwoerdian; the architect of apartheid who must be celebrating in his grave at how well his ideas have penetrated post-apartheid political life. And as a body politic, we have remained silent about it. Had such public remarks been made by white citizens there would have been a public outcry and swift action taken by government agencies and Chapter 9 institutions. Yet because these are African activists associated with prominent figures in the ruling party, or dissidents that have come from it, there has been an official reluctance to respond firmly to the outrageous racism.
Interestingly, there are some commentators who have excused the racist comments on my Twitter account on the grounds that they were provoked by my analysis which warned that the critique of privatisation by some in the State Capture faction and the EFF was inspired by the fact that it would close off their opportunity to loot public funds.
“If you are going to take political sides”, the argument goes, “then don’t be surprised when you receive critical responses”.
There are two problems with this argument. First, there is a difference between critical comments and openly racist ones. The former is legitimate in a democratic public discourse. The latter is not. Conflating the two is a disingenuous attempt to excuse fascist behaviour that undermines democracy itself.
Second, it is unacceptable to demand political neutrality in the face of a fascist political project. Indeed, one of the more cogent critiques of neutral observers in the apartheid era is that one could not claim a political neutrality when a political regime stands for the gross violation of human rights. The fascist project for which both the EFF and State Capture crowd stand, is essentially such an agenda, and there cannot be any neutrality when confronting it. It needs to be firmly responded to and must be treated as a violation of the values of our liberation movement and of our Constitution itself.
Yet it is precisely this firm response that has been lacking in the face of this fascism. This is true of all sides of our political spectrum. Take for instance the case of the Democratic Alliance, which represents the liberal face of South Africa’s political scene. Both factions within the organisation – the conservative market-oriented wing best represented by Helen Zille, and its social democratic counterpart that was until recently most visibly represented by Mmusi Maimane and Herman Mashaba – explored fraternal relations with the EFF.
The alliance was, of course, justified on the basis of dethroning the ANC from political office and thereby enabling a political pluralism to emerge in South Africa. This alliance at all costs was first pioneered by Zille, and only subsequently eschewed by her political faction when the political costs of the municipal turmoil in Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg became all too apparent during the tenure of Maimane. The social-democratic wing took the alliance with the EFF to even further heights, essentially becoming political bedfellows with the EFF in the Johannesburg municipality. Can you imagine the public outcry had such an alliance been established with the AWB or a similar white fascist organisation?
The ANC’s record in this regard is no better. Not only has there been an implicit political alliance between the Ace Magashule State Capture faction and the EFF in recent times, but there have also been repeated overtures by other factions within the ANC. The Gauteng branch of the ANC has repeatedly invited Malema and cohort to return to the fold, as did President Cyril Ramaphosa even though he was instrumental in expelling it. Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni has had an “on and off” public bromance with the red berets throughout his tenure in office.
Part of the problem with the ANC is that they have responded to the EFF as a group of errant children without any cognisance of the political project that they stand for and the consequences thereof. Essentially, the ruling faction in the governing party has suspended its critique of the fascist agenda of the EFF simply because it is being articulated by a cohort of individuals who have a black pigmentation. Again, would this have been done had this been a white fascist party? There can be no greater abrogation of the non-racial values of the Freedom Charter and our Constitution than this opportunistic amnesia by the ruling party about what the EFF stands for.
None of the other political stakeholders come off as any better. Bantu Holomisa’s UDM and Zwelinzima Vavi and Irvin Jim’s Saftu and Numsa have also had similar opportunistic relationships with both the State Capture crowd of Magashule and the EFF. Both groups display a similar selective amnesia about the racism and fascist tendencies of the State Capture crowd and the EFF. Some public intellectuals have been found similarly wanting in this regard. In my own university – Wits – a group of anarchist academics whom I have previously referred to as “Far Left” and the “Pol Pot brigade”, not only politically fraternise with the EFF, but also seem to share its complacent attitudes to violence. In all of these cases, people have suspended their commitment to non-racialism by tolerating blatant racism, all in a desire for opportunistic alliances to challenge what they see as the neo-liberal political establishment.
Yet, none of these political actors have even sought to remember the historical consequences of previous engagements with fascist forces. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Stalinist sections of the international communist movement and some sections of the liberal establishment in the West sought to appease Hitler, essentially enabling the growth and consolidation of fascism and directly enabling the political conditions for the Second World War.
Similarly in the last two decades, mainstream political parties in much of the Western world entered into opportunistic alliances with parts of the far-right, thereby legitimating these movements and creating the political conditions for the emergence of Trumpism, Brexit, and the mainstreaming of proto-fascist forces in much of Western Europe. In all of these cases, the political fraternisation with fascist parties did not have the effect of neutralising them, but instead enabled their growth with devastating consequences for political stability and inclusive development.
The only way to manage the growth of fascist forces in South Africa is to be politically principled in relation to it. This would require dealing with first the structural economic inequalities that enable their growth, and second politically isolating them even if this meant forsaking short-term political gain and access to municipal political power. Malema has been at pains to suggest that a coalition government is still a viable path to political power. He suggests this because he and the EFF have been its singular beneficiary. How else would a party of 11% have been able to wield the influence that the EFF has had in South Africa?
If the ruling faction of the ANC, the DA and other political parties are serious about the political values they stand for and are committed to both democracy and inclusive development, then they would not only eschew political alliances with the EFF, but also hold it and the State Capture cohort accountable for violations of the Constitution and law, even if this comes at the cost of short-term political gain. Fascism has never been politically managed through appeasement. It has only been contained when it has been politically responded to decisively and firmly.
Until now, none of South Africa’s political forces, and too few of its public intellectuals, have had the courage of such a decisive response against the emergence of fascism. And only when they develop the political will for such a response, will we be able to contain the increasing racism in our public discourse and behaviour, the capture of our public institutions and the whole-scale corruption that accompanies it, and the pervasive violence that has come to define political and social life in contemporary South Africa. DM
"Smart people sometimes get stupid but stupid people never get smart." ~ Don Winslow