It is quite astonishing that one person, with barely 10% of the electoral vote, can pose such a clear and present danger to South African society.
With every public and institutional engagement, Julius Malema is dragging South Africa closer to the horrors I witnessed in Somalia in the early 1990s. Having already embedded (culturally) the fascist rhetoric of Benito Mussolini (distinct parallels are clear), Malema has now caused dangerous and potentially destructive cracks in the Judicial Service Commission — a matter that was flagged last year. His disruptions at the JSC hearings to appoint a new Chief Justice is the latest event in the institutional damage he is causing in the country.
Malema has defied the laws of the land with any number of infractions; from apparently firing off live ammunition in a public space; making blood-curdling statements, turning Parliament into a spectacle, and his own type of fiefdom where only his rules apply, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters is leading the country into a very dark and dangerous era.
In some ways, Malema is a reminder of those early 1990s in Somalia, when the writer Maxamed Daahir Afrax brought to the world’s attention how, “The entire fabric of the Somali society has been damaged, the existence of the whole nation has sunk into a deep, dark sea of unimaginable human and material disaster, and the communal mind of the people is in a coma.”
What is most startling is that even a tabulation of Malema’s claims, warnings, his public conduct and statements (which are often devoid of truth conditions) has failed to alert millions of South Africans to just how dangerous he is.
On a personal political level the parallels with Mussolini have been discussed over and over again. It’s worth pointing out, again, some of these parallels to get a sense of the danger his leadership presents.
An outstanding feature of Malema’s public conduct is his unpredictability — flip floppery, if you will. Writing about Mussolini, Fernando Mezzasoma, Italian Fascist leader and Minister of Public Culture, explained: “No one understands him… By turns shrewd and innocent, brutal and gentle, vindictive and forgiving, great and petty, he is the most contradictory man I have ever known. He cannot be explained.”
In 2021, when he disagreed with Mali’s Ali Kone during an African Parliament sitting, Malema told his fellow lawmaker, “I’ll kill you outside. Outside this room, I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you”. Again, Malema channelled Mussolini about disagreeing with someone. “We do not argue with those who disagree with us,” Mussolini said, “we destroy them”.
The above-mentioned are part of Malema’s personal conduct — which we would be foolish to ignore. Perhaps more seriously, it is when he “serves the public,” as a Member of Parliament, on the Judicial Service Committee or in the African Parliament and leader of the third largest political party (that managed about 10% of the vote in the last election), when Malema’s intentions ought to cause the people of South Africa to be especially fearful.
A law unto himself
When the EFF first arrived in Parliament, Malema made it clear, “I’m not here for rules of Parliament. I’m here for a revolution… We are not going to sit back and allow a situation where a revolution is undermined in the name of rules.”
That is as clear a statement of wilful disregard for the laws of the country’s legislature. This has resounding echoes of Adolf Hitler’s dismissal of Parliament when he said that “participation has to be seen as one of many methods of combating the present system … [it] should not be ‘positive cooperation’… but only be through the fiercest opposition and obstructions”. (Emphasis added) Without missing a beat, in February 2020, Malema said in Parliament: “I’m in charge”.
Observing the all too regular and almost synchronised rising, raising of objections, shouting and screaming obscenities and threats in Parliament, most notably the threatening approach of the podium while Minister of Public Enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, addressed the legislature in July 2019, is reminiscent of the way that fascists in the Italian Parliament jeered and provoked the socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti in 1924 — after which he was kidnapped by the Ceka under Mussolini’s command and murdered.
Mussolini escaped personal accountability, but three of his militants (like the EFF’s “ground forces”) were convicted and sentenced to imprisonment.
It was clear, nonetheless, at the time, that Mussolini had abandoned Parliamentary procedure and created in its stead an atmosphere of fanaticism and violence. The year after Matteotti’s murder, Mussolini addressed that country’s legislature, insisted on his innocence (though Mussolini’s personal responsibility from the start has subsequently been fully documented) dared anyone to provide proof of his involvement, and with this drove a final nail in the coffin of democracy in Italy.
“I alone assume political, moral, and historical responsibility for all that has happened.” Mussolini told Parliament. “If Fascism has been a criminal association, then I am the chief of that criminal association…”
Signals of violent intent
When Malema said “We are not slaughtering whites… for now” he took a leaf out of Mussolini’s playbook. Il Duce said: “With 300,000 armed men, determined to carry out my orders, I could have punished those who have vilified and tarnished Fascism. I could make this deaf and grey hall filled exclusively with Fascists. I could. But I have not… at least not for now.” (Emphasis added).
These threats reveal the irreconcilable differences between the EFF’s official policies — some of which reveal immanent contradictions, and others are somewhat reasonable — and its conduct.
For instance, everyone who has worked and saved for decades — from Soweto to Shoshanguve, Clifton to Wilderness Beach, will have their private property confiscated. If, as Malema and the EFF’s constitution states, the state will own all land, how does he explain his call for “property tax” — when the state holds tenure of all properties in the first place?
Malema’s slide towards totalitarianism, where the state nationalises all industries and corporate institutions and controls everything and owns the very land on which people’s homes sit, is reminiscent of Mussolini’s formulation of totalitarianism, when he said: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.” The problem is that the current state has done little to curb the EFF’s public behaviour.
Writing about Mussolini’s fascists in 1923, and reflecting on the EFF’s destruction of department stores and shops whenever it felt offended, Harold Laski of the London School of Economics explained, “The small bands of his supporters grew rapidly until they were the one organised and disciplined party in the state… They met criticism and dissent not by words but by deeds… They broke up public meetings. They beat strikers into submission. …and the government did not dare to challenge their power.”
When, indeed, will the government act against the litany of charges against, and violations by, the EFF. The state seems to be either afraid of Malema (It’s difficult to confirm whether he actually pulled a gun at a high-level meeting when he was in the ANC, and that the alliance leadership was so shocked by his behaviour that they recommended he be sent for “political training” — which never did happen), or they don’t see a problem with his conduct. This is especially cause for concern because the EFF has now added distinctly xenophobic policies and actions to its game.
When scorched earth policies meet civil society
The state seems quite uninterested in laying legitimate charges against the EFF or Malema. Civil society remains a legitimate force in South Africa, notwithstanding the sectarianism caused by the Radical Economic Transformation faction and its allies hiding behind a fig leaf of “economic justice”.
Malema’s end-game is the overthrow of the democratic order that was established after 1994. With this, his objectives are homologous with those of Mussolini, who said: “Democratic regimes may be defined as those in which, every now and then, the people are given the illusion of being sovereign, while the true sovereignty in actual fact resides in other forces which are sometimes irresponsible and secret.” (Emphasis added). Then, as Mussolini said, “we [will] have buried the putrid corpse of liberty”.
It should come as no surprise if Malema “buries” the political settlement of the 1990s; if he applies the politics of revenge in place of reconciliation (flawed as it may be), and he implements a set of policies such as those that led to horrendous cruelty in Cambodia, where Pol Pot wanted to reverse and place the country back to Year Zero, or Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward which, between 1958 and 1962 threw that country into the furnaces of hades, while a famine swept the land. Development economist Amartya Sen found that famines are invariably linked to the absence of democracy.
For as long as Julius Malema and the EFF are active, and apparently immune from closer scrutiny or prosecuted for their misdeeds, democracy is not safe in South Africa.
If we ignore him now, we will allow him to continue poisoning the wells of political discourse; issue veiled threats of pogroms against “non-Africans,” especially those of Asian heritage (EFF “ground forces” told a Muslim woman, a cousin of mine, to go back to Asia); continue to disregard the rules of Parliament; up the ante of besmirching the Constitution, and as demonstrated last week, he will continue to undermine the institutions on which South African democracy rests.
When all is said and done, Julius Malema will bring down the republic which had such a bloody birth when Malema was a little boy, and today has no memory of the difficult decisions that had to be made to prevent a civil war. DM