In 2019, the South African electorate rejected the incoherent and wilful extremes of politics. After the election some parties simply disappeared, the cluck of their cowbells now a distant memory, while others continue to bleed from fingernails, barely holding on to their reveries of revenge, recrimination and revolution.
The brief revolution of Monday, 20 March 2023, which grabbed everyone’s attention but not much more, was an endorsement of the electorate’s relegation of the Economic Freedom Fighters and their newfound friends, Jimmy Manyi, the Pan Africanist Congress, the Azanian People’s Organisation and Zwelinzima Vavi, to less than 15% of influence, representation and power.
We will come back to power. Julius Malema’s new friend and ally, Carl Niehaus, is difficult to pin down morally or politically.
In a moment of Trumpian awesomeness and braggadocio, Malema proclaimed that the turnout to his public protests and performances across the country was a high-water mark in South Africa’s history of demonstrations. He can be forgiven for believing what he sees in the distorting fairground mirrors that surround him.
The public must remain vigilant and not pull out the remote control and turn to the sports channel, and flip the recliner to the relax position. Nor should there be attempts to lionise, romanticise or defang Malema and his band of thugs.
Malema was wounded by the low turnout on Monday, and a wounded person is a dangerous person. Like Trump, Malema’s attempt to shut the country down had parallels, not completely perfect equivalents, with Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, or the attempted insurrection in the US on 6 January 2021.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “The EFF, violence and the national shutdown – echoes of Mussolini’s March on Rome”
The latter comparison was run by Michael Harvey of Washington College in Chestertown, US, in the introduction to the book, Donald Trump in Historical Perspective: Dead Precedents. For what it’s worth, from my research on parallels between Malema and early, and more recent fascists, I should put down findings and commentary by Zoe Beloff of City University in New York, who described Trump as a “sloppy fascist”, and by James McDougall of Oxford University, who insisted: “No, this isn’t the 1930s – but yes, this is fascism”.
Returning to the parallels…
A putsch, insurrection and a shutdown
Michael Harvey drew historical parallels with Trump’s failed insurrection and Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. In both cases, Harvey explains that Trump and Hitler “planned and led significant assaults on democratic governance” in their respective countries, with the overriding objective being to transform politics, state and society. Both men, like Malema, sought to emerge from their day as national leaders.
Consider the main arguments of the book, Donald Trump in Historical Perspective. Harvey and colleagues present and analyse Trump’s conduct, his behaviour and impulsiveness, and his refusal to adhere to political and even ethical or constitutional norms (place that beside Malema and the EFF’s behaviour in Parliament and outside Parliament).
Trump is presented as the anti-institutionalist (Malema has dismissed the high court), as populist demagogue, and as a would-be authoritarian who exploits electoral and political vulnerabilities to gain and hold power.
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Before the planned shutdown Malema asked South Africans to lay down their “bodies…. Whether they kill or not kill, we will be on the streets of South Africa. We don’t care what the security cluster says or the judge says. No one can stop a revolution.”
The actual shutdown was unsuccessful, though in terms of perception, propaganda and its emulative effects, much more analysis may be necessary. What may be said, for now, is that the failure of the shutdown was a temporary setback for Malema and the EFF. There will be continued efforts to raise his profile and present him as some kind of saviour of the poor. Public intellectuals (journalists, commentators, scholars) have to remain critical…
The Beer Hall Putsch was not an isolated attempt by Hitler to raise his own profile. Struggling to make significant gains in political authority and power and to shore up his pride, Hitler published (under a false name) a glowing biography, Adolf Hitler: His Life and His Speeches, in which he presented himself as “the leader of the most radically honest national movement […] who is ready as well as prepared to lead the German struggle for liberation”.
Considering the way Malema is presented as valiant and messianic, Hitler’s autobiography-in-disguise is replete with biblical references and language, and the argument that the book should “become the new bible of today as well as the ‘Book of the German People’.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: “ANC is testing the limits of South Africa’s moral tolerance”
Hitler is compared to Jesus and likens the purported moment of his (Hitler’s) political awakening – at a military hospital in the German town of Pasewalk in 1918 – to Jesus’s resurrection: “This man, destined to eternal night, who during this hour endured crucifixion on pitiless Calvary, who suffered in body and soul; one of the most wretched from among this crowd of broken heroes: this man’s eyes shall be opened! Calm shall be restored to his convulsed features. In the ecstasy that is only granted to the dying seer, his dead eyes shall be filled with new light, new splendour, new life!”
The failure of the national shutdown is merely a setback for Malema, as was the Beer Hall Putsch for Hitler or any of Benito Mussolini’s setbacks. Also, between 1919 and 1923 (the Putsch being a key event) the fascists in Austria and Germany went through a slump. This setback (obviously) did not deter them.
During the slump, the Western media went from being smitten with Hitler – Karl von Wiegand of the Hearst newspaper group was mightily impressed by the fascist’s oratory skills and ability to whip people into a frenzy – to dismissing him as a buffoon.
When he came out of prison (and after the Beer Hall Putsch) most people seemed to forget Hitler. In the US he was considered to be a “clown… a caricature of himself” and nobody, including the German public, could understand how he could come to a position of power, but believed, anyway, that he could be controlled by the more established political leaders and parties.
Ultimately, the lesson that should be heeded is that the fascists of the interwar period had their setback and slump, but the splinter groups became a mass movement which, by 1939, resumed the European war that started in 1914.
In response to a question by a colleague: the fact that Malema is not in office is neither here nor there, it is his political tactics, the politics of revenge, scapegoating, threats and actual violence, militarisation, that set him apart.
Trump did not become a more pleasant and progressive person after he left the presidency.
The Holocaust did not start with World War 2.
Julius Malema will be back. Actually, he has not gone away. DM