South Africa is about six months away from the seventh general election of the democratic era. Given the fractiousness of South African society; a loss of trust in the government and of faith in the state; a rise in regional rivalries that are, in places like the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, contiguous with increases in ethnic or racial pride; increases in lawlessness and of violent crime across most of the country; and a political economy that cannot function without a reliable supply of energy, skills, professionalism and dedication to promoting and preserving the common good; when taken altogether, makes it difficult to not give in to catastrophism.
The range of political parties that will contest the election is spread across a conventional spectrum, only two of which are explicitly religious, the ACDP (explicitly Christian) and Al Jama-ah (explicitly Muslim). The rest draw on ideas of political thought and programmes of action that can be described as secular, rooted in European Enlightenment thought, with references to thinkers like Frantz Fanon dropped in for effect or to appease ersatz intellectual communities.
Having spent the better part of three years looking seriously at the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), I have reached the conclusion that they are apparently the only political formation that threatens violence, promotes the politics of revenge and of hatred, and seems to have given their followers a licence to hate and the expectation to kill or die for their political objectives.
Over the coming months, in this space, I will lay out the parallels, the continuities, the echoes and homologies between the EFF and three phases of fascism of the past 100 years or so.
I have written on this sporadically over the past two or three years, but this time I want to place the text in a coherent form that would help voters make decisions in next year’s pool, and choose the type of society that is most desirable, where peace, prosperity, cohesion and high levels of trust among the population define the country voters want to call home.
The starting point
I will start with the organic fascists of the inter-war years (Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini); continue through the post-war fascists (like Generalissimo Franco of Spain), Portugal’s António de Oliveira Salazar; the thinly veiled fascism of Juan Peron of Argentina; the early 21st century fascism of Viktor Orban (Hungary); Narendra Modi of India; Donald Trump of the United States; Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and the brutality of Rodrigo Duterte of Philippines. (There are folk who might want to include Russia, but it is an oligarchy and a civilisational state. Iran is a theocracy.)
Before I proceed with the first argument, I should explain in the first instance that I have spent much of my scholarly work, as well as casual reading and research on the global political economy, on geo-strategy war and intelligence and especially of the way that war and warfare, violence and persecution have shaped the social conscience of the world. I have alluded to all of this previously.
To be clear, that I have spent decades studying this does not mean I have to be taken seriously and that what I say is abgesichert. It may have been the jurist and political theorist, Hans Morgenthau (1904 – 1980) who, when a student questioned something he had written in his highly influential work, Politics Among Nations, was angered, and responded that he had spent almost 10 years on the book, and what gave the student the right to question his ideas.
I also don’t claim superior logic, and I am not obsessive about qualifications. For what it’s worth, my knowledge of anything and everything is nanoscopic when compared with what it was when I was 16 or 17, or even 35 or 40, for that matter.
Nonetheless, much of my work and inquiry was shaped by the Critical Tradition in the social sciences, most notably by the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, and especially by the French Existentialists.
I say these things to acknowledge first, that I will not insert “Fanon” or “Thomas Sankara” to ingratiate myself with the posties, or to make out like I am cool. I am barely medium cool.
Doing so would make me guilty of what Karl Marx described as the “murderous, meaningless caprices of fashion”. So I write, then, from a perspective that may be Critical (capitalised “C”) and proceeds from “a position,” that Georg Lukács referred to as the “approach” from which the essay springs. Staying with Lukács. This essay, and the ones that follow are, in a measure, confessional. But the reader has to decipher that…
Mussolini was charismatic, until he came to power
The second point is more important. If we ignore the signs, the symbols, the performativity, the rhetoric and public conduct of the EFF as an increasingly fascist, dangerous and destructive movement, we will make the same mistakes that the mainstream media — mainly The New York Times and the Associated Press — made when Hitler and Mussolini gradually swelled their power and influence.
Mussolini was romanticised by the US press. There were occasions when The New York Times was especially polite, and suggested that fascism marked a return to “normalcy” in Italy. As previously noted in this space, Julius Malema is presented as a great man of great peace. But it is hard to shake the passage in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra: “Still is the bottom of the Sea: who would guess that it harbours sportive monsters.”
It would be remiss if we ignored the way that the press, notably the US press, helped pave the way for the rise of fascism in Europe. It is not funny that only once the journalist Dorothy Thompson (who was recognised in the late 1930s as the second-most influential woman in the US after Eleanor Roosevelt) was expelled from Germany by the Nazis that she went from mild support for Hitler to outright condemnation.
“No people ever recognise their dictator in advance,” she wrote in 1935. “He never stands for election on the platform of dictatorship. He always represents himself as the instrument [of] the Incorporated National Will… When our dictator turns up you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys…”.
The way in which The Times of London dismissed Hitler’s strong showing in the German election of 1930 summed up the way that the press treated the rise of fascism in Europe in the inter-war period:
“The Nazis have scored their overwhelming success because they have appealed to something more fundamental and more respectable. Like the Italian Fascists they stand for some national ideal, however nebulous and extravagantly expressed, to which personal and class interests shall be subordinate.”
It is not just the media that ignored or defanged Hitler and Mussolini. They had intellectuals who sided with them (sometimes on, sometimes off); people like Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound who once described the United States as a lunatic asylum and did his best to persuade the US audience that Mussolini had some of the right answers to current problems…
Lessons from the 20th century
The organic fascists of the last 100 years and, it should be said, those who carpet-bombed countries for the sake of freedom (or just because they could) made the 20th century the deadliest era in modern history.
By some counts, an estimated 120 million people were killed in Europe’s wars during the last century. This makes it even more important that we learn from the past.
Before the First World War, the war that would end all wars, consider an advertisement on a Berlin bus promoting a brand of cigarettes: “Moslem Problem Cigarettes”… It all seemed so much like the “normalcy” that The New York Times wrote about, and the Islamophobia of today.
In South Africa we have an undeterred belief in the virtue of our own being — well, some of us do… whatever the question may be, Julius Malema is the answer. This will be the undoing of the next South Africa.
Malema’s strength, to his followers, is to present the past as a tabula rasa, onto which he, personally, could write any story. In Malema’s ethno-nationalist imagination, non-Africans are a people without a history, a people to whom things must happen, and on which war (revenge, recrimination and biblical punishment) must be made.
Malema has a large margin to work with. During the 20th century, the organic fascists killed 17 million Soviets; about nine million of whom were soldiers, and the rest were civilians. Julius Malema has deified dying and killing for his followers, they will stop at nothing to have their revolutionary moment.
The Nazis had code words for their killing sprees. They spoke of “the final solution”, “special treatment”, “pacification”, and “removal”. In Vietnam, the Americans shot and killed peasants and villages from the air so they didn’t have to look into the eyes of their victims — with great joy they “hunted Asians” and returned to base satisfied.
The Asians in Vietnam (the non-Africans in South Africa) are non-human. Thus a Japanese reporter in 1967 wrote that the Vietnamese were not worth saving, they were not people (real Africans), after all.
“The Americans,” he wrote, “seem to fire whimsically and in passing even though they were not being shot at from the ground. Nor could they identify the people as Vietcong [non-African in South Africa’s case]. They [the Americans] did it impulsively for fun, using the farmers as targets as if in a hunting mood. They are hunting Asians.”
Here we are, then: when the EFF speaks of shedding blood, dying or killing (for the land), not calling for a genocide (yet), they refer to non-Africans, the Jews of Germany, the Asians in Vietnam… we have to be able to see the moral lies, and the threatening tones. In next week’s essay, I will detail the ground motives that bring Mussolini, Hitler and Malema together. DM