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Blackshirts, Brownshirts, Redshirts: The rise and rise of Julius Malema and the milking of popular politics

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Ghaleb Cachalia is an MP in the National Assembly and the DA spokesperson on Public Enterprises. He serves on the Ethics Committee in Parliament.

Populism is the negation of political liberalism. It thrives in social, political and economic circumstances where political institutions — especially the rule of law and safeguards for minority rights — are weak and where polarisation and majoritarian tendencies are strong.

The rise of populism — be it in the mantle of a Donald Trump or a Julius Malema — is predicated on economic grievance. Trump sought to capture the racial animus, alienation, anti-elitism, and “exploitation” of the white working class. Malema trades in the dispossession of black people by apartheid and it’s colonial antecedents — specifically focusing on how black people are regarded as inferior, how they have been prevented from owning land in much of South Africa and how skilled jobs were — and are, as he asserts — reserved for white people.

It matters not that both distort the minutiae of the current reality and engage in the proffering of half-truths — fake news, in the parlance of the 21st century — as long as there is a festering sore, the diagnostic origin of which can be traced to a history that is strident in its attribution, angry in its manifestation and negligent of any nuanced reading of the past with nary a grasp of what is needed to build instead of break.

The reality is that unless the economy flourishes in order to secure social stability through growth-fostering measures, there will always be someone who will come up with simplistic claims to secure popular political support — often with dire consequences.

This is the fertile ground ploughed by populists of the Trump and Malema ilk — supported wittingly or unwittingly in South Africa’s well-heeled corridors by the EFF-adoring Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA, many guilt-ridden “progressives”, swathes of xenophobes, elements of the downtrodden armies of the marginalised millions, a significant portion of the lumpenproletariat and the motley bunch of thieves who constitute the ANC’s RET faction. 

The ANC’s inability to deliver a “better life for all” over some 30 years, after wresting control of the infrastructure it fought so hard to inherit, has played neatly into this populist playbook. Its patent failure to stem the disintegration of social structures and law and order, the encouragement and emergence of factions and fealty, corruption and capture by elites has delivered the all-important element of chaos that favours the birth of mass populist movements.

Hannah Arendt identified a key reason for the success of Hitler and Stalin as the lack of structure within the society, coupled with the perception of a world falling apart. Forty years after Arendt’s death, populists seem to use exactly the same strategy to mobilise masses: fear and chaos. It should not be lost on observers that a key development in the 21st century is an extremely fluid boundary between populism and extremism.

As Takis Pappas, a PhD graduate from Yale University and a comparative political science researcher and writer affiliated with the University of Helsinki, Finland explains, there are three kinds of parties aggregated under the populist label:

  • Anti-democrats who take part in elections as “anti-system” formations and comply with some of the outward rules of parliamentarism, but disdain its principles and spirit and would happily jettison them if given the chance
  • Nativists who represent right-wing conservative ideas — the defence of law and order, as well as what has been termed “welfare chauvinism” — while being fully committed to parliamentary democracy and constitutional legality; and
  • “Pure” populists who display two antithetical characteristics — the harbouring of an allegiance to democracy, and the endorsement of illiberal tactics. Malema falls squarely into the latter category.

Populism is the negation of political liberalism. It thrives in social, political and economic circumstances where political institutions — especially the rule of law and safeguards for minority rights — are weak and where polarisation and majoritarian tendencies are strong. Present-day South Africa appears to be tailor-made for the emergence, over time, of this manifestation which has parallels and precedents in a host of countries — central and eastern Europe, Brazil, India, Israel and more.

This is precisely why Malema is able to say, during a heated exchange with legal counsel Mark Oppenheimer in the current trial before the equality court: “I’m going to be president, whether you like it or not… I will preside over the affairs of this country, including presiding over you. I think you must start adjusting to that reality. The sooner you do that, the less chest pains you will have when that reality comes.”

Remember how Donald Trump’s interest in pursuing the presidency vacillated publicly — until his expectation-shattering campaign of the 2016 election which gave meaning to his assertion when asked who would support him for the White House: “when I walk down the street, those cabbies start yelling out their window … The working guy would elect me; they like me.”

When emboldened in this way, does the use of racially inflammatory rhetoric open the floodgates to prejudice and encourage members of the public to express deeply held prejudices? The answers lie in recent memory, in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, which was punctuated by a consistent series of inflammatory statements targeting racial and ethnic minorities and where it was not clearly and strongly condemned by other elite political actors.

It is apposite here to cast one’s mind back to 2010, when the ANC dismissed a ruling by a regional high court that uttering or publishing the words of inflammatory songs would amount to hate speech and violate the Constitution put in place after the end of white minority rule. “These songs cannot be regarded as hate speech or unconstitutional,” then ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe told a news conference.

A study in the British Journal of Political Science — “The Trump Effect: An Experimental Investigation of the Emboldening Effect of Racially Inflammatory Elite Communication” — by Newman, Merolla, Shah, Lemi, Collingwood and Ramakrishnan — posits that the emboldening effect of such rhetoric (Trump’s, in this instance, but equally applicable to Malema’s utterances) is most pronounced when other elites in the political system tacitly condone such speech.

When other elites stay silent, it potentially signals to those who are prejudiced that the norm environment is shifting and that it is no longer unacceptable to publicly express prejudice. In other words, it gives licence to individuals who harbour prejudice to express it.

Therein lies the rub, and the importance of holding Malema to book lest we pave the way for a populist future that will end badly — as it always has throughout history. Never forget that when Benito Mussolini came to power in the wake of World War 1, conditions favoured a new polity centred on nationalism and restoration of Italy to some imagined glory.

Fascism appeared to offer an answer and a shot in the arm to many of the issues faced by both downtrodden Italians and elites: an economic crisis, massive public debt, inflation and unemployment. It also provided safety from the threat of communism that had been established in Russia.

Fascism meant nationalist unity — its frontline corps were the Blackshirts in Italy and the Brownshirts in Nazi Germany. They promised a solution — a solution that laid the ground for Hitler’s final solution.

In South Africa, we have the Redshirts. The naysayers will scoff at the inclusion of Malema’s red-clad EFF in this grouping. The tragedy is they do it at their own peril. They would do well to remember that the far-left firebrand stated previously that he would not “call for the slaughter of white people… at least not for now” and when given the opportunity to recant and make clear that he would never call for the slaughter of whites, the Commander-in-Chief of the EFF simply refused — “I won’t do it”, he said defiantly.

In 1919, Hitler penned a letter in which he said, “the final aim, however, must be the uncompromising removal of the Jews altogether.” He, too, never recanted. DM

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