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Is South Africa’s failed revolution at risk of collapsing into fascism?


Dr Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute and a postdoctoral scholar in gender justice, health and human development at Durban University of Technology.

In South Africa it is no exaggeration to say that we face a serious threat of fascism. We live in the aftermath of a failed revolution that has left millions of people in desperate straits.

Walter Benjamin, the great German intellectual, famously argued that “behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution”. This was certainly true of the fascist regimes in Europe in the 1930s. The old order was no long viable, the Left had been brutally defeated and fascist politics emerged to fill the vacuum. The result was absolute catastrophe.

In its classical form in Europe in the 1930s, fascism had the following primary characteristics:

  1. It aimed to replace a politics of class solidarity with (white) racial solidarity;

  2. It gave alienated and poor young men a powerful sense of identity by giving them uniforms and allowing them to engage in street violence;

  3. Democracy was replaced with authoritarianism by an alliance between the mob on the street and the state organised around a charismatic male figure mobilising a crude sense of “us” and “them” in a manner more appropriate to war than democratic politics; and

  4. An alliance was forged between the interests of big capital, the state and the street mobs.

But fascism can take many forms and will never return in exactly the same way twice. Beginning with the classic 1977 study Imperialism and Fascism in Uganda, by the great Ugandan intellectual Mahmood Mamdani, numerous studies have examined the rise of fascism in the global South.

There are forms of fascism in the global South, such as the Afrikaner right wing in South Africa, and the forms of fascism that have appeared across Latin America since the 1970s, that are organised around white supremacy. But there are also many forms of fascism in the global South that are not organised around white supremacy.

They are, instead, organised around religion, ethnicity, nationality and so on. The best-known example of contemporary fascism in the global South is Hindu fascism in India, but there are many others, too.

As with classical European fascism, fascism in the global South emerges when democracy is in crisis. Fascists use an alliance between the state and the mob to replace democratic forms of governance with authoritarianism. In some cases, this is linked to the interests of big capital with the state and the mob uniting against trade unions and other forms of politics organised around class solidarity. But in others, the elites driving the project are making their money from the state rather than capital.

The reign of terror unleashed by the late Robert Mugabe’s Green Bombers, an informal militia that used rape, murder and torture on a mass scale to defend a corrupt ruling elite in the state is not untypical of the horrors of fascism in the global South.

Today fascism is appearing in many societies. There are openly fascist politics in the US, Hungary, India, the Philippines, Brazil and elsewhere. The material base for the re-emergence of fascist politics are the failures of neo-liberal capitalism. But although fascism never emerges without an economic crisis, there is always a political choice in terms of how a society responds to a crisis.

When the Left is strong the response will take the form of solidarity organised along the lines of class and there will be attempts to democratise the state and the economy. When the Right is strong there will be mobilisation along the lines of nationality, race, ethnicity, religion and so on, with the aim of scapegoating a minority for the crisis and using an alliance between street mobs and the state to impose authoritarianism.

The minority that is scapegoated can be a religious, racial or ethnic minority, migrants or even, as in the Philippines, drug addicts or people presented as “criminal”. The point is to divide the working class and the poor in the interests of elites.

When fascist ideas are only attractive to the poor, they may become a very dangerous force in society, but they will not come to dominate. Fascism only comes to dominate when it becomes attractive to the middle classes. This is what happened in India and Brazil in recent years.

The middle classes are usually won over to fascism when they feel insecure. This can be for economic reasons, because of a deep rage at corruption or because they simply don’t feel physically safe. In Brazil the turn of the middle classes to fascism was driven by all three of these factors. But the fear of crime was critical in driving the middle classes to support fascism.

In South Africa it is no exaggeration to say that we face a serious threat of fascism.

We live in the aftermath of a failed revolution that has left millions of people in desperate straits. With the exception of important localised initiatives, the Left, mostly as a result of its entanglement with the ruling party, has failed to mobilise in support of a vision of economic democracy.

There are a growing number of poor men who are attracted to forms of right-wing politics that offer them the chance to follow a leader, feel important and attack vulnerable minorities. At the same time, the state is confronting a decline in electoral support and growing popular protest.

Under these circumstances it is very tempting for the political class to encourage fascist ideas in order to displace popular anger away from politicians and towards vulnerable groups.

Since 2008 it has become clear that xenophobic mobs are very often organised by local politicians. They do this, and will continue to do this, because it is in their personal and class interests to deflect popular anger away from themselves.

However, none of this is new. There have been waves of xenophobic violence since 2008. What is new, and what puts us in a moment of real danger, is that many among the middle classes are now actively supporting authoritarian ideas.

The middle classes are facing a threefold crisis. The first part is economic. They face mass retrenchments and are sinking into debt. The second is political. Years of gross corruption have fundamentally undermined their confidence in democratic forms of politics. Unfortunately, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s lack of any kind of charisma and vision has not resolved this problem. The third is a crisis of security. Middle class people face horrific rates of crime, including horrific and pervasive forms of gender-based violence.

When the middle classes turn to far right-wing forms of politics, such as demanding the death penalty and a state of emergency, or the mass deportation of migrants, there is a genuine risk of fascism. The fact that these kinds of demands have emerged in protests that have the “look and feel” of progressive politics, and in other respects are absolutely urgent and welcome, should not blind us to this risk.

In Brazil it was mass protest against crime and corruption by the middle classes that opened the road to power for Jair Bolsonaro. Many journalists and intellectuals who considered themselves progressive enthusiastically supported these protests at the time. They had no idea they were helping pave the road to disaster.

However, for fascism to become dominant in South Africa it will need to find a leader and an organisational form that can unite the growing authoritarianism among the middle class with the street mob and a party-political form that can control the state.

At the moment that has not happened. The new alliance between the EFF and the pro-Zuma forces is one contender for the role, but the EFF, to its credit, has not supported the xenophobic mobs on the streets. Also, both the EFF and the pro-Zuma forces are unlikely to win mass support given their history of brazen and crude corruption. They fact that they are so morally compromised weakens the risk that they could lead a fascist project.

There are people and forces in the ANC aligning with street mobs via “dog whistle” politics and actively embracing middle class demands for constitutional democracy to be suspended in favour of authoritarian measures like the death penalty and a state of emergency. However, at the moment these forces do not appear to be dominant. However powerful figures in the ruling party are associating themselves with calls for authoritarianism and developments in this regard need to be watched closely.

If things shift towards the right in the ANC, or a new charismatic leader without a history of personal corruption emerges from within the ANC, or from without, there is a real danger South Africa could collapse into fascism.

In India the fascist project took years and years of organisation to triumph. In Brazil it happened almost overnight. The same thing could happen here. These days, with social media, a charismatic figure can emerge on the national political stage like a flash of lightning.

In this time of genuine crisis, it is vital that we are not naïve about the seriousness of the dangers we face. We need to do the following as a matter of maximum of urgency:

  1. Begin to fix the economy with a focus on the well-being of the majority;

  2. Address the gross corruption and inefficiency in the state, including the crisis that has been caused by an utterly dysfunctional and corrupt police force. It is particularly vital that people start to feel safe in their everyday lives;

  3. Oppose street mobs and their backers as firmly and clearly as we can;

  4. Find and support credible leaders who can offer a democratic vision for a way forward; and

  5. Rebuild the Left. DM

Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation. Buccus promotes #Reading Revolution via [email protected] at Antique Café in Morningside, Johannesburg.


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