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The EFF, violence and the national shutdown – echoes of Mussolini’s March on Rome


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

When Julius Malema speaks of the need to use violence to reach the EFF’s revolutionary objectives, it is useful to bear in mind Benito Mussolini’s call that armed action was ‘needed at once or we shall never do it’ – which was followed by the ‘March on Rome’ and consequent collapse of the Italian government.

There have rarely been protests by the Economic Freedom Fighters, in Parliament or on the streets of towns and cities, that have not been marked by violence.

This is all terribly reminiscent of the confrontations and political tactics of fascism. In each instance of EFF protest qua violence, the movement has claimed innocence and deflected blame or responsibility to others.

When, for example, the EFF advanced on the podium at the start of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2023 State of the Nation Address, and his security detail acted to prevent any likely violence, the police and security officers were, in turn, accused of violence.

In response, EFF spokesperson Vuyani Pambo, apparently unaware that heads of state are usually protected from potentially violent confrontation, suggested that “excessive undue force” was used, and that the picture he tweeted, “says it all”. The picture, for what it’s worth, shows only a single security official in camouflage, holding back the EFF leader, with others approaching Malema with open palms.

eff shutdown

Accompanying a photograph of the security officials stepping toward Malema, Pambo said “the intention was clear”. To most neutral observers, the intention seems to prevent any physical harm to the President. Is it not true that the EFF leader, Julius Malema, requested special protection, notwithstanding that he represents a parliamentary minority?

eff shutdown

The violence around EFF demonstrations and protests, a veritable reputation of thuggery, has become customary. Closer scrutiny, as I have been engaged in for a couple of years, and which I resumed working on after the Covid pandemic, shows parallels, homologies and continuities with organic inter-war fascism and similar post-war movements.

As previously pointed out in this space, it is difficult, but not impossible to see creeping fascism in the EFF.

Read more in Daily Maverick:

Public disruptions and intimidation of journalists – it all seems so familiar

The loving embrace of fascism, patriotism and nationalism, and the EFF’s ‘survey’ of ‘foreign’ workers

Malema’s fixation with Ramaphosa’s nose resuscitates ‘scientific racism’ embraced by the Nazis

The EFF’s latest trick – to bring the country to a standstill – has ominous echoes of Benito Mussolini’s march on Rome and the widespread violence that took place before, during and after that epochal event.

Detailed studies of the October 1922 march on Rome revealed Mussolini’s carefully crafted strategy of demonising, demoralising and intimidating the liberal-socialist establishment of inter-war Italy. (See Giulia Albanese’s 2019 book, The March on Rome: Violence and the Rise of Italian Fascism). Mussolini’s march on Rome would change the course of Italian history.

There are important warnings to heed as the EFF’s national shutdown approaches. It is certainly true that the EFF is a relatively small movement, but it has a loud voice.

Like Mussolini, the EFF’s leader Julius Malema is a masterful orator who taps into dissent over poverty, inequality and perceptions – or the reality – of a loss of power and influence. This belief in losses runs deep in the EFF imagination; in some instances they are real, depending only on what measure of compromise one believes is necessary for political progress.

Malema and the Mussolini playbook

Looking back to the weeks and months before the march on Rome (which saw the almost immediate rise of Mussolini to head of the Italian state) there are striking homologies between EFF politics, Malema’s rhetoric and the politics and society of pre-fascist Italy.

Mussolini’s desire for power grew in the years after the fascist movement was created in 1919. Within three years, Mussolini decided that waiting for a parliamentary solution to the country’s problems was a waste of time. He demanded that the liberal-socialist government should leave office and that he (Mussolini) had the keys and an appointment with the future – as leader of Italy.

When Malema speaks, then, of the need to use violence to reach the EFF’s revolutionary objectives, it is useful to bear in mind Mussolini’s call that armed action was “needed at once or we shall never do it” – which was followed by the march on Rome and consequent collapse of the Italian government.

Mussolini would be handed power by the king out of fear that he would plunge the country into intractable violent conflict. It helped, of course, that through his black shirts, like Malema’s “ground forces”, Mussolini had for months used violence to harass and intimidate political opponents and communities, mainly in and around cities like Rome and Naples.

Parenthetically, these are the two main areas of fascist activities that I have looked at closely in my inquiry into parallels between Mussolini and Malema.

And, if we wonder why Malema and other EFF leaders have not been arrested or prosecuted to the extent that some may consider necessary, the answer(s) may lie in the way that the police in South Africa, like their inter-war Italian counterparts, were smitten with Mussolini’s ideas.

By 1922, Mussolini had “broken the police” by exploiting weaknesses in police structures and authority, and its high command began to issue warnings and instructions to police officers across the country. The police effectively failed to stop Mussolini’s fascists because of institutional defects in police force organisation.

As it goes, the police were poorly treated by the government at the time and they had no particular reason to be loyal to the liberal parliamentary system. The police had lost faith in the state, and could not depend on their leaders for support when they carried out unpopular orders. (See “Breaking the Police: Mussolini’s Use of Terrorism” in the journal, Violence, Aggression and Terrorism Volume 1: 1, 1987 pp 41-59).

The national shutdown

The main objectives of the EFF’s national shutdown are to see the end of ANC governance, the resignation of Ramaphosa and for Malema to meet his “appointment with the future”. That the EFF is a minority party is irrelevant.

Before the march on Rome, the fascists had won only 34 of 533 seats, but they would become the most vocal, threatening and potentially dangerous opponent of anyone who had anything to do with the “orderliness” of parliament.

They carried so much political force that “no government in Rome could survive without making some concessions to the fascists”, not unlike the way the ANC is increasingly embracing Malema.

In fact, Malema, like Mussolini in his prime, is the epitome of a Caesarist personality and “a man of idea and strength” who had remarkable abilities to “sway all sorts of disaffected people, now inflaming, now taming their rampant energies… this best organiser and most eloquent tribune of Italy.” (See Vojislav Gerasimović, in “Talijanski fašisti”, Politika on 16 September 1922).

As this week unfolds in the run-up to Malema’s “march on Rome”, we will probably see sporadic violence and exhortations, warnings like, “if you know what’s good for you”.

Statements by the EFF will be strategically laced with logical fallacies and emotive language about abuse and exploitation by international actors. In my inquiry, and which I should detail later in the year, international liberal capitalists, in particular, were one of the main targets of Mussolini’s rage.

Should the shutdown be a success – however that will be measured – it should be seen as a victory for fear and intimidation, the weaknesses of the state and the ineffectiveness of a broken police force.

A single question may be put to the EFF leader: “If a national shutdown is such a good thing, and a necessary step towards a better society, why would there be a need for threats of violence?” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • David Walker says:

    Totally agree. Except this fascist violence is not confined to the EFF. It is rife in all ANC aligned organisations such as the unions, student protestors, the taxi industry, the construction mafias, and the coal cartels. After all, the EFF is just the active ANC youth league in red overalls.

  • Richard Baker says:

    The other topical references are the 2018 bestseller “Son of the Century” a tome of note by Antonio Scurati and the 2022 movie “Marcia Su Roma”(March on Rome) directed by Mark Cousins. As Ismail writes there are many parallels. In my view these include a weak government and an ineffectual police force. Terminology such as “fascist” or other is possibly irrelevant since it is the credo and behaviour of a political party that determines its influence and effect. Whether seeking to usurp power or a joining of forces between the EFF and the ANC(to survive in the 2024 polls) – with accommodation of Malema and his men-the coming months could see the greatest threat ever to the Nation’s future.

  • The opportunism of picking a day that would create a long weekend is a stroke of genius. Might make it look like a lot more support than he really has.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    It’s hard to miss the parallels between the EFF and classic fascism. The uniforms, the violence and threats of violence, the pseudo military organization, the cult leader, the street theatre, the intimidatory rhetoric and the scapegoating.

  • jack R says:

    “Sydney Kaye
    14 March 2023 at 08:29
    It’s hard to miss the parallels between the EFF and classic fascism. The uniforms, the violence and threats of violence, the pseudo military organization, the cult leader, the street theatre, the intimidatory rhetoric and the scapegoating”
    This reminds one of Hitlers raise to power. Red shirts V Brown shirts, and in Hitlers use of using Jews as a scapegoat, as Malema using whites as a scapegoat. Blaming them for all the woes of the country. So many parallels to the 30’s. Will we be able to save democracy aginst this “fascist” onslaught, I truly hope so.

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    What I do not understand is why that overall is still red and not orange?

  • Peter Holmes says:

    We all know how Mussolini and his mistress met their end. Italians became disillusioned with Fascism and Italy’s involvement in the War. I wonder how Malema will end up?

  • Peter Dexter says:

    The parallels between Malema and Mussolini (& Hitler) are obvious. Much like the ANC, neither Mussolini nor Hitler delivered the “better lives” they promised their people. Their strategies cost millions of lives, and Mussolini was executed by his citizens two days before Hitler committed suicide. I wonder whether Malema has read that part of the history, and if so why he believes it will end differently this time. We all agree with him regarding the ANC’s bad governance, but shutting down an economy already in tatters directly due to 28 years of ANC incompetence and theft, illustrates a complete disregard for the poor people he claims to represent, especially if violence is involved. The more successful the EFF protest on Monday, the greater the harm to the economy. I’m confident that the majority supporting this initiative will be blissfully unaware that they could be the trigger behind many employers’ decisions to finally close or relocate labour-intensive businesses to more employer-friendly jurisdictions. Will the “demonstrators” understand that their actions will result in job losses, possibly even their own, and exacerbate our already unsustainable poverty and inequality? The VBS fraud revealed that Malema and the EFF leadership don’t care about the poor people who support them. They are just voting fodder and a source of crowdfunding for their luxury lifestyles.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Let’s remember where Julius Malema learnt his tricks: ANCYL! The ANC has tolerated violence and threats whenever it suits them. Go and shut down Bryntirion!

  • Libby De Villiers says:

    Our government tripped itself up and fell face down. We might need violence to get it up, but most definitely not to bring it down.
    Julius, the puny little fascist, just likes a little bit of inflammatory hate speech and seeing himself as a tall, imposing patriarch leading masses of desperate people to who knows where.
    What a fool!

  • Sam Shu says:

    Just one gripe about the article : “Creeping fascism”???, 🤔, rampant, i would think. And as one response points out, not just the EFF, but within the ANC and FF+. Possibly “creeping” in ActionSA and DA

  • Beryl Ferguson says:

    The article is on point. I often ask myself, have we stopped thinking. If we sit and do nothing we will surely be led down this dark road with the EFF being the pied piper

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