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Opinionista

The EFF started with a grudge, presented a promise — then morphed into fascists

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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.

Recently Julius Malema added his voice and support for the Palestinians, which gave him a lot of support among Muslims. This may be nothing more than a ploy to get votes from Muslims in the Cape. We must remember that Mussolini was mildly tolerated by almost all Italians until he openly expressed his racism and anti-Semitism in 1938.

It is difficult to say, with any certainty, that Julius Malema’s launch of the EFF was not simply an act of grudge, of ill will against the ANC that occupied his mind for being expelled from the African nationalists. A generous reading may bring us to accept that the creation of the EFF was a promise; a leftist promise to reorient South African politics towards a more just and fair society, that put pressure on the African nationalists towards a more social democratic and pacific order. 

Somewhere along the way, Malema, the leader of the EFF, channelled the Italian fascist Benito Mussolini, whose early political career was with the left. Through his father’s leftism, baby Benito’s middle names, Amilcare and Andrea, were in deference to Italian socialist Amilcare Cipriani and Andrea Costa. By his early adulthood, Mussolini became editor of Avanti! (Forward!), the official daily of the Italian Socialist Party. 

Mussolini was expelled from the socialists for his drift from orthodox Marxism with its insistence of nonviolence, to the revolutionary authoritarianism of fascism when, in his mind, the Marxists were insufficiently ethno-nationalist and militarist (for Marxism’s objection to World War 1). 

Malema saw greater appeal in nativism (a proto-nationalism that in South Africa precludes “non-Africans”), coupled with militarism, to achieve his political power as a nativist revolutionary authoritarian. It was probably at that point at which he bought into Adolf Hitler’s gripes, shared his base motives, and in which Malema would almost 100 years later see great appeal and opportunism.

It was only after they came to power that Mussolini and Hitler (we may add a future president Malema) could mix ‘legal’ state repression with ‘illegal’ squad violence.

A brief note before we proceed. When references are made about “fascism” it’s useful to separate what I refer to as “organic fascists” (Hitler and Mussolini), and the fascists of the post-war years; like Spain’s Generalissimo Franco, or Portugal’s António Salazar, among others. In this essay, I will focus on the organic fascists, on the parallels, homologies and echoes (I can’t be held responsible for people who argue from personal incredulity) that fed their base motives, and how these have by accident or design influenced Malema. It’s useful to bear in mind that almost all despots and dictators do not campaign as despots and dictators, on mass extrajudicial killing and incarceration of opponents.

In a volte face from being mildly infatuated with Hitler, who had her expelled from Nazi Germany, the New York Times’ Dorothy Thompson wrote in 1935: “No people ever recognise their dictator in advance.

“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…  he will be one of the boys…”

It was only after they came to power that Mussolini and Hitler (we may add a future president Malema) could mix “legal” state repression with “illegal” squad violence, and when “the police found cause to arrest and harass left-wing political opponents, while the squads could engage in beatings and assassinations to silence other critics”. 

The three base motives of Malema, Mussolini and Hitler

Hitler and Mussolini were resentful of the Treaty of Versailles (ostensibly an agreement on peace after World War 1). Somewhat similarly, Malema was vehemently opposed to the peaceful settlement of the 1990s, especially the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa). All three promoted violence against opponents, especially people and/or media houses they considered to be “puppets” of liberal capitalists.

Hitler believed “the German people” were unfairly targeted at Versailles; he believed his people were neutered at Versailles. He stated openly that the treaty rendered Germany militarily weak, while other European states were allowed to keep or strengthen their forces. He said this made it imperative that the Germans build up their militaries for protection. In terms of the treaty, his army was reduced to 100,000 men, they were not allowed to have tanks, no air force, no submarines and only six capital naval ships. The western regions of the Rhineland were turned into a demilitarised zone where no German soldier or weapon was allowed, with the Allies keeping a presence in the zone for almost 15 years.

The issue of land was of special concern for Hitler. The most prominent examples of the loss of territory were: West Prussia, Posen and Upper Silesia were given to Poland; Alsace-Lorraine was given to France; Malmedy and Eupen were given to Belgium; Northern Schleswig to Denmark and Hultschin to Czechoslovakia. Altogether, Hitler believed the Treaty of Versailles resulted in the German people being sold out to liberal internationalists, left weakened and humiliated. The emphases are important for noting the similarities with, especially, Malema.

Mussolini was greatly inspired by the violence and usurping of power by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. This, he said, “made anything possible”. Purely by coincidence the victory of the Bolsheviks inspired Mussolini to create his Italian Combat Squads (precursors of the Fascist Party), and violently attacked his political opponents. When he eventually formed the Fascist Party in 1921, he emphasised unity among proto-nationalists and expelled whomever he thought were disloyal. Disloyalty has always been a bone of contention of the EFF leader.

In an SABC report (14 December 2019), under the rubric, Malema “reads the riot act to disloyal members”, he would echo Hitler, and described everyone who disagreed with him (political parties, media houses, etc) as “the puppet of capitalist establishment like the previous government was the puppet of a corrupt family”. 

Mussolini suspected that everyone who opposed his Fascists Blackshirts (which will be discussed in detail in a forthcoming essay), were recipients of largesse from “wealthy landowners” – again we see the echoes of Malema’s disdain for “puppets”, “capitalists” and “wealthy landowners”.

It suffices to make the point that the Italians did not get the land they were promised, rightfully or wrongfully, and Malema’s ‘African child’ remains ‘landless’ in the post-Codesa political economy.

Malema’s remarks reported on 14 December 2019 echoed Mussolini’s reference to the press as “scandalous” and asked (rhetorically) about press attacks against his fascists. “The whole nation is asking what the government is doing, the whole nation is asking whether it is governed by men or by puppets.” 

Recently Malema added his voice and support for Palestinian people in their seven-decade fightback. While we can bicker over which side has a better political, historical or biblical argument, based on social media and popular media reports, Malema gained a lot of support among Muslims. However, this could be a ploy to get votes among Muslims in the Cape. It is necessary to be wary of how Mussolini “flip-flopped” and almost overnight went from being mildly tolerated by all Italians, to a fascist leader, openly expressing his racism and anti-Semitism, which may well have been the high-water mark of his fascism in 1938.

Speaking at Trieste, which has a story if its own, the French newspaper Le Monde reported, in 2022, that “it was precisely here [in Trieste] facing the sea, that Benito Mussolini delivered the most consequential speech of his career, proclaiming the need for ‘a clear, strict racial consciousness, which establishes not only differences but also legitimate superiorities’. Calling the Jews ‘irreconcilable enemies’ of fascism, he announced the adoption of measures that, in a few days, would condemn Italians of the Jewish faith to a whole range of discriminatory practices: a ban on mixed marriages and exclusion from the public service and a whole range of professions (including journalism) and loss of nationality. In short, it was social death.”

Malema was barely 10 years old when Nelson Mandela and the ruling National Party sat down to discuss a future political dispensation. In 1915, Mussolini left the military and returned to journalism. Neither of the two was significantly involved in politics. But events of 1991, and 1919, would at different times and places (obviously) shape their politics. Codesa represented, to Malema, a selling-out of Africans, and imposition of a liberal capitalist international puppet government on South Africa, and for Mussolini, the Italians achieved a “mutilated victory” after World War 1. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Julius Malema and his Extraordinary, Fanatical Followers, a decade later

Codesa did not return the land to Africans, and the mutilated victory in  Italy was brought about by the Europeans and North Americans (also the bétte noire of Malema) who reneged on a range of agreements that would grant or “return” land to Italians once the dust had settled. It is a detailed study, involving several countries and territories, and the reader is encouraged to follow up starting with the 1915 Treaty of London, or go back far enough to Italian claims of irredentism and Garibaldi’s March on Rome in 1862. It suffices to make the point that the Italians did not get the land they were promised, rightfully or wrongfully, and Malema’s “African child” remains “landless” in the post-Codesa political economy.

Pulling it all together, Mussolini, Hitler and Malema shared a base motive that wove together “loss of land”, “humiliation” or “mutilated victory” and a people being “sold out” to “liberal international capitalists” – or in the lexicon of South African politics, to “white monopoly capital”. DM

Next week’s essay will focus on the politics of revenge, and the licence to die and kill.

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  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Like all opportunists, Juju may well be angling for Muslim support in the Cape, but that assumes that that segment of the community is totally unaware of his fascist inclinations and will be seduced by it. Probably more significant is the just announced JZ declaration that he will not support the ANC in the next election. Now … would that not be a marriage made in heaven (or what is that other place ?). Remember he is one who slapped down Juju’s attempt to feed at the trough the rest of our state capture ‘liberators’ … and forced Juju to form an ‘new’ party. In turn, humiliated by this rebuff Juju went on a ‘pay back the money’ rampage ! But when the lust for raw ‘power’ is unveiled .. even ‘enemies’ can become great bedfellows ! That ‘state capture’ chapter of the ANC is still very much alive … and lusting for a return to power at any cost.

  • Warren Wilbraham says:

    Thank you for some thought provoking reading. More “long form” pieces please.

  • Denise Smit says:

    Thank you for your insight and bravery

  • Peter Slingsby says:

    An excellent analysis of the mind of Malema – and it’s certainly high time that media like the Maverick should start referring to the EFF as ‘far right’ rather than ‘far left’. But it’s an error to suggest that there will be mass South African support for Malema’s fascism; all past fascist states [and most modern dictatorships too — China, North Korea, etc etc] require a majority homogenous population who can be excited by myths of past homogenous greatness. Malema’s relative lack of success in KZN, for example, suggests a singular lack of homogeneity between Venda and amaZulu … and we have yet to see any evidence of electoral support for him from any religious group.

  • Michael Evans says:

    Just as crime fighters fight crime, and fire fighters fight fire, the Economic Freedom Fighters are fighting economic freedom

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Interesting how the convergence between Hitler/Mussolini and Malema is happening, and it is all a coalition of the bitter, twisted and wounded. SA needs to be fully aware that in Malema, we are dealing with nothing but an obnoxious racist and a bullying thug, who spews vitriol and hate to all who oppose him. I also doubt that the Muslims would be that easily hoodwinked by him – it is so pathetically obvious that it was all done for their vote.

  • Con Tester says:

    The parallels have been clear for some time already. Pope Julius also opportunistically uses military jargon. What is also clear is that he’s very frustrated by his popularity apparently having hit its peak. All of his antics must be probed for motives related to increasing his political status, power, and / or support. His thwarted megalomania is the root of his petulance.

    (BTW, the term is “bête noire.”)

  • Ken Shai says:

    The degree of bias in this article amazes me! I am not a fan of Malema, but comparisons with the most evil historical figures are mind boggling . And I am sure by denouncing Israel and expressing support for Palestinians, Malema spoke his mind, and sometimes being sincere on an issue can only bring in votes.

    • Michael Thomlinson says:

      A naive comment. Go back to the history books. Hitler’s party was in the minority and no one took him seriouasly until it was too late. He used the Jews as a scapegoat to blame Germany’s woes on and his other objective was to fund his party and the war with stolen assets from the Jews. Sound familiar when look looking at JM’s MO? Only difference is that in JM’s case he is looking at the white people (and that includes the Jews) of this country as a scapegoat and a source of funds.
      As far as the Palenstinians are concerned, do you really think that JM is acting out of concern for them or is this just another flip flop political move to try and get more voters?

  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    Another outstanding essay, thank you Ismail. To me, the most frighteningly striking extract is “When our dictator turns up… he will be one of the boys … ”
    Hindsight being the most wonderful science, this rings scarily true all around the world.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    It’s an open question whether the Palestine card will garner Cape votes for Malema any more than it will for the ANC. They are both banking that their target market hates the Jews more than they hate being excluded by Malema’s Africanist nativism or the ANC’s BEE.
    In any event the signs of fascism are everywhere : the street theatre, the uniforms, the daily agression and violence, the barking speeches, and the threats and intimidation.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Agreed. So? And? Why write about stuff that no one disputes?

  • Jon Quirk says:

    Excellent article. We CAN learn from history, and South Africa is not exceptional, or an exception to this rule. Ju-Ju would be the greatest disaster it is possible to imagine; worse by far than even Zuma.

  • dexter m says:

    Great article , but pls keep your articles short and precise . If you look at quite a few democracies today grievance politics and finding scapegoats is in vogue by politicians and it is attracting voters . In both established democracies like the US and a fledgling like ours. Why ? Maybe you next article can give your opinion

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