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Mussolini dreaming – South Africa’s on a journey towards a full-blown dystopian state


In real life, Professor Balthazar is one of South Africa’s foremost legal minds. He chooses to remain anonymous, so it doesn’t interfere with his daily duties.

This year we celebrated the 29th Human Rights Day since the dawn of democracy. Ominously it came one day after the EFF’s attempt at a national shutdown of the country.

A perceptive article by Ismail Largadien drew a frightening comparison between Julius Malema and Benito Mussolini.

A notorious march orchestrated by Mussolini in October 1922 demanded that the liberal socialist government in power at that time should leave office and that he, Mussolini, was now the key to the future of Italy. Julius Malema’s tirade delivered to full-throated supporters last Friday had chilling echoes of Mussolini. Malema strengthened this comparison as he promised that his march, coupled with a national stayaway, would herald the commencement of the “EFF revolution”.

That Malema may have overpromised but underdelivered, compared with the 1922 march, is cold comfort. He leads a party which garnered more than 10% of the electorate and which, without any increase in the 2024 election, could still be crucial to the establishment of a national government after the polls are closed. This alone should place any constitutional democrat on their guard. In addition, some media commentators appeared  to elide the fact of small turnouts for the EFF marches and a main cause of the quiet business day being many treating Monday as another public holiday, to present the EFF campaign as a success and thus shower Malema with fulsome praise.

By contrast, the focus of attention should be on a key threat to democracy in this country. The first assault on constitutional democracy by the Zumarites did great damage. Yet 29 years into democracy a number of guardrails of democratic governance remarkably remained intact. The judiciary and elements of the media, for example, exposed the nefarious activities of Mr Zuma and his acolytes and, to a considerable extent, caused his removal from office.   

The threats remain, however. Jacob Zuma’s removal from office was not  accompanied by the eradication of an anti-constitutional assault. The latest revelations about Eskom, for example, show that widespread corruption is more than simply alive and well. But that is not all. A report by Professor Mark Shaw, the director of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, refers to about 15 illicit markers in South Africa that are completely at war with the country’s political, social and economic fabric. Illicit drugs, illegal firearms, wildlife and smuggling, extortion, kidnapping, robbery and assassinations are powering a journey towards a full-blown mafia state. 

Shaw writes: 

“Organised crime is an existential threat to South Africa’s democratic institutions, economy and people. It often lies behind and connects numerous seemingly disparate criminal incidents we see occurring every day.”  

The recent murder in broad daylight of liquidators Cloete and Thomas Murray luminously illustrates the present-day threat to South Africa’s fabric.

Read more in Daily Maverick:With a thoroughly broken Eskom and impoverished SA citizens, Constitutional Court delivers palliative care

Into this toxic mix comes an economy which is rushing into calamitous collapse. The fourth quarter of 2022’s GDP, which indicated a decline of 1.3%, doubtless will be accompanied by a similar decline in the first quarter of 2023, thanks in significant part to the degradation of Eskom. If this trend continues, public finances will come under increasing pressure, social grants will be threatened, and unemployment will continue to rise. In sum, the most fertile ground will be created for populists like Malema.  

In this, South Africa is no exception. 

That there is now a widely held view that the EFF and the ANC will join forces in a coalition government in 2024 only makes the prospect of a move towards this vision of a dystopian society all the more likely. 

In many countries which at some point were constitutional democracies, autocrats have won power. Autocrats like Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Narendra Modi in India show the way. 

They did not need to introduce new laws but used existing legal frameworks, which were already in place, when they won elections and then began to deconstruct all checks and balances by hollowing out the substance of the existing legal protections against the exercise of arbitrary power.

The manner in which a number of high-profile cases have been litigated in South Africa reveals how law can be shaped to be at war with its promise of accountability. 

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

The EFF may wish to go further; hence the apt comparison to Mussolini. 

The EFF vision is characterised by a supreme leader (and his ridiculously overblown military term, Commander in Chief) coupled with a centralised autocracy, the suppression of opposition particularly given the desire for the subordination of individual interests to a perceived common good of the nation.  

Read more in Daily Maverick:Sona speech, 2023 edition — a shameful night of multiple failures

In this Malema and Mussolini meet in ideological conformity. That there is now a widely held view that the EFF and the ANC will join forces in a coalition government in 2024 only makes the prospect of a move towards this vision of a dystopian society all the more likely. 

The Gauteng ANC seems to have little difficulty in building coalitions with the EFF to control the various city councils in the province, no matter the contempt the EFF has for the national leader of the ANC. 

The deputy president of the ANC, Paul Mashatile, enjoys his most enthusiastic support in the province of Gauteng. It is therefore not an unreasonable inference that an ANC/EFF coalition in 2024 would emerge, if, as the polls now predict, the ANC support dips below 45%. If this scenario plays out, Malema will be in pole position to create the kind of society that he has – and 100 years ago Mussolini had – in mind.   

For those who celebrated Human Rights Day 2023, the challenge is to ensure that this disastrous scenario does not take place. For this to occur, a commitment to constitutional democracy which transcends party divisions has to develop in South Africa, and rather quickly.  

To date, coalition politics does not appear to have produced constitutional alternatives. The stakes will only be higher after the 2024 election. 

The question, therefore, is whether we will seriously be able to celebrate Human Rights Day in 2025. The one positive which emerged from the EFF failure on Monday was that the majority of the country does not appear to share its vision. The challenge for the political party system in South Africa  is to align with this rejection of authoritarian politics. DM


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  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    Well said Professor. The hypocritical danger that lurks within each coalition discussion cannot be underestimated or ignored. The Cucumber in Chief (fixed your spelling for you) and his mythical saviour attributes should not be allowed any more airtime, especially after Monday’s embarrassing showing.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    What do the polls say about the EFF? My impression based on recent municipality elections is that support for the EFF is waning and may well be less than 10% in 2024.

    • Hermann Funk says:

      That maybe so. But if the ANC get 45% in GP and the EFF 9%, they would still able to form a government. It is then that the shit will hit the fan.

  • Kim Webster says:

    Let’s hope the Midrand gathering currently underway yields or rather insists real electoral reform and outright rejection of the “amendment ” we’ve had shoved onto us

  • Rory Short says:

    “The challenge for the political party system in South Africa is to align with this rejection of authoritarian politics.”

    Absolutely. Our problem in SA is that the majority of the electorate is comfortable in tribal cultures which are authoritarian in nature.

  • William Kelly says:

    Until we get a proper opposition, and the DA under Zille and Steenhuizen is NOT it, voters will stay away and the sham that is the elections will continue to support the incumbents off a smaller and smaller base. Which is not great. The DA needs a coup and some proper leadership to stand any kind of chance.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Mussolini is nowhere near the correct comparable here. Mussolini was a despicable bully, a thief, a racist and a dictator – but under his government in the early years [before his suicidal affair with Hitler] much of Italy’s modern infrastructural advancement was made, bridges, roads, dams – and a functioning rail service that still performs today. Malema will not achieve anywhere near that even if he were to govern for a thousand years. All he will have in common with Mussolini is being a despotic bully, thief and racist.

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