South Africa lacks, and urgently needs, an electoral alternative that offers a genuine left-wing populism.
In South Africa there is a strong tendency to fetishise the law and the courts as the key site for the progressive realisation of human rights. The legal system is certainly an important site of struggle but it is not an inherently progressive space. On the contrary the law is a reflection of the balance of forces in society. We should never forget that apartheid, colonialism and slavery were all legal.
This lesson has been taught, once more, in the United States with the decision of the Supreme Court to uphold the so-called “Muslim travel ban”. This disgraceful policy implemented by Donald Trump soon after he won the presidency with a virulently racist campaign, and a fake news social media strategy masterminded by the neo-fascist ideologue Steve Bannon, is now law. The fact that it is law does not make it any less disgraceful.
But the decision of the Supreme Court does mean that racism is being actively normalised in the United States. What was once outrageous is now “normal”, and legal. This is the ultimate aspiration of the fascist forces stirring around the world. They aim to normalise a politics of racism and chauvinism. It is not impossible that in time the law may also support Trump’s disgraceful policy of separating migrant children from their parents, and keeping them in cages like stray animals.
As the far right, including neo-fascist forces, has gained ground in countries like Britain, Italy, Austria, Hungary and the United States, Umberto Eco’s famous essay on Ur-fascism has been widely read and circulated. Eco makes many brilliant points in this essay including the observation that contemporary forms of fascism will not look like the political movements led by Hitler and Mussolini. European fascism of the 1930s and 1940s was just one form of fascist politics. There are, and will be, many others. Fascism can also be led by figures like Idi Amin. It can hail someone like Donald Trump as a leader.
Trump won the American presidency on the back of a campaign of unbridled racism, most of it aimed at Muslims and Mexicans. The Muslim travel ban was his first major act in office. It was aimed at showing his base that he was serious about his racism, and that it wasn’t all “just talk”. America was founded on genocide and slavery but since the civil rights movement in the 1960s there was a sense that there was slow but steady progress towards the realisation of universal human rights.
Now that the Muslim travel ban has been accepted as legal by the Supreme Court the United States has stepped back from the commitment to universal Human Rights entered into after World War II as a response to fascism. The United States is now presenting itself as a white and Western “civilisation” from which “others” are formally excluded. The movement is now towards racism rather than away from racism.
In South Africa numerous intellectuals, including, especially, those with a knowledge of how fascism has captured state power in India, have warned that fascist forces are also gaining ground in our own country.
In 2015, at the height of the student movement, anti-Semitic ideas, often drawing directly on European fascism in the 1930s, began to appear. The notorious student leader Mcebo Dlamini openly expressed his admiration for Hitler. In recent weeks people perceived to be Indian have been subject to high levels of abuse and intimidation, especially via social media. Xenophobia against migrants from elsewhere in Africa, as well as Asia, has become routine.
Chauvinism, and sometimes outright racism, have been normalised. The attempt to normalise chauvinism and racism is also central to fascist politics. But so too is authoritarianism and charismatic leadership. In this regard the EFF fits the fascist mould to a “T”, as do tiny but vociferous made-for-the-media outfits like Black First Land First and some of the other forces supporting Jacob Zuma.
We must condemn Trump and work to build solidarity with the victims of his racism in the United States. But we also need to be aware of the fascist forces in our own society.
In the United States the Democratic Party made a fateful mistake in running Hillary Clinton against Trump. Neoliberal candidates cannot win elections today.
The only way to counter right-wing populism, including fascism, is with left-wing populism. Bernie Sanders would quite probably have defeated Trump. Recent electoral victories by members of the Democratic Socialists of America over established Democratic Party incumbents show that the outpouring of support for Sanders was no anomaly. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and the recent election of López Obrador in Mexico, confirm this global trend, as do the electoral successes of Pademos and Syriza in Spain and Greece.
When Jacob Zuma first came to power he was often presented as a left-wing populist. In hindsight that was clearly mistaken. His populism proved to be more typical of that of the right – a toxic mix of state looting, authoritarianism and chauvinism. As thinkers such as Berkeley’s Professor Gill Hart have argued, populism came to the Global South, to countries like India and South Africa, before it came to the North.
But in South Africa the dominant response to the disaster of the Zuma years, the looting, the fake news and the spies in every corner, has been an attempt to restore the neoliberal politics of the Mbeki years.
The dominant challenge to the ANC has been from the EFF, a party that many consider to be fascist or neo-fascist as a result of its authoritarianism, gross chauvinism, and lack of regard for facts, as displayed in the disgraceful attacks on eminent struggle journalists Anton Harber and Thandeka Gqubule.
What we lack, and urgently need, is an electoral alternative that offers a genuine left-wing populism. The logical base for this project to emerge would be the trade unions outside of the ruling party, and the new social forces that have emerged from the shack settlements.
But a figure like Bernie Sanders, or López Obrador, that could unite these forces has not emerged. If we don’t build a genuine left-wing populism – democratic, opposed to chauvinism and committed to reason and honesty – the ANC could rapidly be drawn towards the right, and the authoritarianism, chauvinism and corruption of the pro-Zuma forces and the EFF. DM
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