How does one manage public engagements with fascists, Stalinists and others who are intolerant in our deeply divided, politically polarised world? This is a question that has preoccupied me for the last few years, and I have had to constantly return to it and think it through. I also have to confront it as the vice-chancellor of one of the more prominent universities in South Africa that is constantly in the public eye, whose decisions matter for those within and outside the institution, and whose supporters and detractors are not shy to make their voices heard.
The issue is of course complicated by the fact that I also engage publicly on political and socioeconomic questions, matters on which South Africans are deeply divided, and about which fascist and Stalinist groups are often animated. But this is not a question unique to me and neither is it an esoteric one: it confronts almost every public leader and our responses in this regard have serious consequences for the stability of our political system and the future of our country.
The dominant response to the polarising discourse of fascists, Stalinists and others from most public leaders is the “dignified and formal” one. It involves a refusal to engage publicly with this discourse, especially on social media. Their intellectual defence is George Bernard Shaw’s famous maxim “Never… wrestle with a pig, you get dirty; and besides, the pig likes it.” But the problem with this adage, like all others, is that it does not capture the political complexity of the challenge. Leaving the pig to wrestle in the mud without at least containing it, enables it to contaminate the environment, greatly enhancing the burden of disease for all those who inhabit the place. Is this not what is currently playing out in South Africa? Look at the state of our political system, the poisonous nature of our public discourse, the almost farcical character of parliamentary proceedings, and the utter collapse of most of our state-owned enterprises and public institutions.
The problem is that when we play the “discreet and dignified” game, we embolden the fascists, Stalinists and other intolerant individuals to continue with their current behaviour and discourse. They are allowed to intimidate ordinary citizens and force them to the margins of our public debates. Essentially we give the fascists and the intolerant carte blanche to define the public sphere and determine its interactions. Perhaps this is best demonstrated by the response of President Cyril Ramaphosa to the challenge of the EFF in Parliament. The president has never treated his opponents other than with courtesy and respect. Even when they have harangued him and threatened his closest allies, the president never once criticised their behaviour. Indeed, one may even argue that he tried to appease the EFF and its leaders in an effort to either draw them into the fold or at least contain their antics and excesses.
But what has been the success of this approach? Has this in any way stemmed the erosion of trust in Parliament? Indeed, the almost farcical nature of the deliberations in Parliament, the almost clownish interactions of the EFF MPs and the responses to these, and the violent excesses and interactions in the chambers make a mockery of our democracy and the decision-making that accompanies it. Even more serious is how these theatrics have poisoned the public discourse and interactions in the public sphere.
For those of you who think that this may be an overstatement, take a simple stroll through the comments on my Twitter account, or those of critics like Pauli van Wyk and Ferial Haffajee, among others.
Not only have the EFF and others made the most disgusting racist statements, but they have also behaved in violent ways in a number of public incidents, without serious censure. The failure of the state to hold them accountable has resulted in the violation of rights of citizens and other stakeholders, and provoked the mobilisation of counter political groups, some of whom have also engaged in a similar racist and toxic public discourse. In a sense, the “dignified discreet” response has resulted in a race to the bottom in civility, respect and violence in the public sphere in South Africa.
The problem has of course not only been the conduct of the president and the ruling party. It is also the failure of almost all in the political system. Think about Musi Maimane’s DA, which regarded the EFF as fascist and yet entered into an alliance with them, and the leader revelled in taking selfies with the “commander-in-chief”. Or think about Herman Mashaba, for that matter, who is offended by Helen Zille and then defends his fraternisation with EFF politicians who make the most toxic racist statements and stand for everything he has claimed to abhor. And what about the ostensible left – Zwelinzima Vavi, Irvin Jim and Bantu Holomisa – all of whom politically fraternise at strategic moments with the EFF, a party whose ideas (if not conduct) are equivalent to that of the Ku Klux Klan. For those of you who think that this may be an overstatement, take a simple stroll through the comments on my Twitter account, or those of critics like Pauli van Wyk and Ferial Haffajee, among others.
In the US the appeasement of the far right goes back a few more decades and culminated not only in a shift to the right of the entire political establishment, but also in the almost complete capitulation of the Republicans to the Tea Party fanatics which resulted in the ultimate victory of Donald Trump.
The mistakes of our political elite in this regard are not new or exceptional. In fact, they are typical of how mainstream political parties have reacted to the rise of fascist, Stalinist and other intolerant groups across the world. The rise of proto-fascist parties in Western Europe and their entry into the political mainstream, and even the state, was preceded by the traditional parties legitimising them through engagement, alliances and even the adoption of some parts of their policy platform.
In the US the appeasement of the far right goes back a few more decades and culminated not only in a shift to the right of the entire political establishment, but also in the almost complete capitulation of the Republicans to the Tea Party fanatics which resulted in the ultimate victory of Donald Trump. In almost all of these cases the political elite repeated the political management mistakes of Chamberlain in his interactions with Hitler and those of many other politicians in the 1920s and 1930s. Of course in both historical moments there was the failure of incumbent elites to address the challenges of the society and in particular the growth of structural inequality. This, coupled with failure of the political management of fascism and other intolerant forces, enabled their rise with devastating consequences. Who can dispute that a similar trajectory has been seen in South Africa over the last decade?
Yet, this failure of political management was not inevitable. There was and is an alternative approach to the political management challenge. This is what I and others have tried to experiment with in the last few years. It entails challenging fascist and other intolerant forces by calling them out for what they really are, confronting them in their engagements in the public sphere, and making the case for both their social and political ostracisation and holding them accountable for their actions. This has entailed three distinct interventions.
The first of these has involved engagements directed at defining and labelling them for what they really are. I (and many others) have written articles identifying the defining features of fascist movements, and demonstrating how the EFF eerily reflects these in their daily practice and rhetoric. We have followed this with now openly describing them as a fascist party in our day-to-day interactions. Some colleagues have recommended that my words and writings may be more widely digested if I refrained from labeling the EFF as fascist. But to do so would be to play into their hands. After all, they are indeed a Fascist organisational expression as has been demonstrated elsewhere, and the pejorative term should be openly applied to them not only to demonstrate how abhorrent their ideas should be for the majority of citizens, but also because it establishes the intellectual foundation for why they should be politically and socially ostracised.
Let me make the case on a related but distinct challenge. Many of us often bemoan the fact that racism continues to have an impact on our day-to-day existence. Yet, we do not sufficiently self-reflect on our responsibility for this situation. How many of us, for instance, tolerate blatantly racist remarks by individuals in closed family gatherings? It may very well be easier to ignore rather than challenge these remarks in closed social settings, but do we not enable the consolidation of this behaviour as part of our ordinary culture by turning a blind eye to this racism? Only when we challenge it openly, even when it is uncomfortable to do so, do we begin to constrain racist practices, by ostracising their perpetrators and pushing these practices to the margins of society.
The challenge of our historical moment today is to address inequality and to stand up to the fascist politicians, parties and other intolerant individuals and entities who use its discontents to fracture society. This is what public leaders are required to do. They should not be retreating from this responsibility under the misguided notion that the right of passage for public leadership is the experience of abuse by fascist and other intolerant individuals.
A similar process is required to deal with fascism. It needs to be challenged, especially by those in authority. Only when fascists and Stalinists are challenged, do we embolden ordinary citizens to make their voices heard, and thereby create the conditions for the social and political ostracisation of these leaders and their political expressions. This, by the way, has been the prevailing practice in much of the world since the second world war. Fascist parties existed in the post-war era, as did their politicians, but the abhorrence for their actions during the war and the consequences thereof, ensured that they were pushed to the margins of civilised society. They were essentially socially and politically ostracised in Europe, and especially in Germany. No mainstream party would have contemplated engaging, let alone entertaining a political alliance with fascist parties. When they displayed their racism or were violent, they were immediately held accountable by the police and the courts. But far more effective was the social and political ostracisation to which they were subjected. To belong to this party, to profess to share its beliefs was something to be embarrassed about. Fascism was pushed to the very margins of civilised society, and this only changed in the era of neoliberalism when social and political polarisation was again enabled, but this political management of fascist parties began to fray.
What lessons does this hold for South African public and private leaders and for mainstream political parties? It requires them to display courage, to stand up to fascist discourses in the public domain, to politically ostracise these parties and to socially ostracize their leaders. It requires the president not to invite them to engagements when he meets opposition parties, and it needs those opposition parties not to enter opportunistic alliances with fascist organisational expressions , even when there are short-term political gains to be had. Most of all, it requires a political public to penalise political parties at the polls when they stray from these first principles of political management in a democracy.
The challenge of our historical moment today is to address inequality and to stand up to the fascist politicians, parties and other intolerant individuals and entities who use its discontents to fracture society. This is what public leaders are required to do. They should not be retreating from this responsibility under the misguided notion that the right of passage for public leadership is the experience of abuse by fascist and other intolerant individuals. Public leaders need to realise that when they retreat in the face of attacks by the intolerant and the violent, they disarm citizens and members of their institutional community, and do not empower them to stand up to this abuse.
Public leadership in South Africa in this historical moment ultimately requires us to recognise that the EFF, and even some other intolerant individuals both within and outside the ruling party, are not the true heirs of our hard-fought democracy who are trying to push us in the direction of an inclusive future. No; they are instead the political stepchildren of Hendrik Verwoerd, informed only by their anger at the political system he generated, and therefore only capable of reproducing it with themselves at its helm. It is this political understanding that drove Mahmood Mamdani who, following in the intellectual trajectory of Hannah Arendt, entitled his study of the Rwandan genocide When Victims Become Killers. If these political stepchildren succeed, we shall be ushered into a new era of darkness. Our responsibility, encapsulated in the vision of our Constitution, is to break this political cycle.
It requires us to chart a new path to inclusion as a foundational building block for a new diverse, cosmopolitan and humane society. But this can only come to pass if we collectively have the courage to stand firm and resolute against these political stepchildren of Verwoerd. DM
"I didn’t like having to explain to them so I just shut up smoked a cigarette and looked at the sea." ~ Albert Camus
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