Opinion Piece

Ismail Lagardien: It’s difficult but not impossible to see creeping fascism in the EFF

Trying to define fascism, the British historian, Ian Kershaw wrote, is like “trying to nail jelly to a wall”. Fascism is as complex as the rhetoric of fascists is confounding. It is almost impossible, therefore, to pin down, exactly, what it is or who really is a fascist. What does help is to situate even the faintest notions of fascism in specific historical and functional contexts. Perhaps this way we may make some gains.

To the extent, then, that there are any threads that run through perceived or actual fascists and fascist regimes – from the proto-fascist Joseph de Maistre, to Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein or Rodrigo Duterte – we might find parallels in the way they mobilised passions of the disaffected, deferred to authoritarian rule (of course, by themselves), and with rapine, encouragement of appropriation of property, and sanctioning the use of violence as cornerstone policies and practices. What also makes fascists stand out is crude demagoguery, the manipulation of populist emotions, promises of a return to an ideal time in history and ethno-nationalist pride – all of which rests on claims of actual or perceived victimhood and dispossession.

Whether or not we can agree on these trends, looking at them more closely, may help us identify any latent fascism in the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The EFF is a particular cause for concern because they have presented themselves as “the government in waiting”. Also, perhaps more than any other group, they mimic, without any sense of irony or compunction, the rhetoric and patterns of politics that drove Benito Mussolini to power in Italy (and Adolf Hitler in Germany) during the inter-war period. In Europe, then, and South Africa, today, we may identify social conditions that serve(d) as fertile ground for fascist demagoguery and appeal.

In South Africa there is an understanding that the political settlement of the early 1990s failed to award complete justice to indigenous people. During the inter-war period the 1919 Treaty of Versailles was blamed for humiliating Germany, and Italians were unsatisfied aspects of the treaty. In the 1920s and 1930s Europe experienced mass unemployment and large-scale social misery. This gave birth to legions of disaffected and alienated young people who found fascism alluring. There are clear parallels, then, between South Africa early in the 21st century, and Europe during the inter-war period.

The EFF’s main drive seems to be to return South Africa to a time “before the white man arrived”, when indigenous people lived in peace and harmony on the land. I am not for a minute suggesting that land reform is not a fundamental requirement to radically address inequality in South Africa, simply that marching one group of people off the land, and marching another on to it may have unintentional violent consequences. Just for the record, I am fairly loyal to the Frankfurt School, and believe that we have to take responsibility for unforeseen consequences of our actions. Colloquially put, if you drive drunk, your attention may not be to kill someone, but if you do run over a pedestrian and kill that person, you are responsible for their death.

Anyway, in true populist form fascists express people’s hopes in a putrid stench of emotive rhetoric. They are, generally sceptical of constitutionalism, and tend to reject modernising social change and transformation. In its original, inter-war, incarnation fascism rests on a wide-ranging set of ideas, beliefs and values that are undemocratic, while fascists, themselves, hide behind constitutionality.

There are distinct echoes of these in the EFF’s selective use of the Constitution and the judiciary. In as much as Julius Malema has used the Constitution and Parliament to add force to the removal of Jacob Zuma, it is worth bearing in mind that on 16 November 1922, Mussolini assured the Italians that constitutional government was sacrosanct. That was until he rose to power, and then threatened lawmakers with violence if they refused to grant him special legislative powers. We have yet to see whether Malema will appeal to the Constitution in the way that he has over the two years or so, once the EFF’s policies, programmes of action and bellicosity come under judicial scrutiny.

During the inter-war period, Italian fascists originally also sought to undermine legitimate institutions (like the state or parliament), and found great pleasure in discrediting political elites. Again, we see parallels with the EFF. Before he led his party out of Parliament when Cyril Ramaphosa was elected as President, Malema dismissed the legislature as an elitist institution. He led the EFF back only when it suited them on Monday – during the SONA debate.

In Italy and Germany, the fascists tapped into male-machismo and the street-fighting mentality of disaffected people. Here, too, the glorification of the EFF’s militancy and their praise of “ground forces” are distinct echoes of European fascists. One recent study found that internally the EFF was an especially autocratic group; another opinion is that the group thrives on patriarchy, abuse and sexism.

The standard response from the EFF was, as can be expected, to insult the writers or discredit them as political hacks or counter-revolutionaries. Recall that Mussolini’s henchmen (and the Nazis) were especially critical of, and often violent towards the media. Yet, the lionisation of Malema continues, and his party have effectively been defanged. This, too, is reminiscent of the way that Mussolini was romanticised, by mainly the United States press during his rise. There were occasions when The New York Times was especially polite, and suggested that fascism marked a return to “normalcy” in Italy. However, the closer Hitler and Mussolini came to power, the more serious their attacks on individual journalists became.

Still, and perhaps contradictorily, in terms of policies or ideological origins, beyond the land question, ethno-nationalist pride and chauvinism – and almost pathological shouting and screaming abuse at everyone – it is difficult to (perfectly) match the EFF with any of the intellectual traditions and ideologies that followed the French revolution or that shaped politics throughout the 19th century, and that caused some of the worst bloodshed humanity has seen in the 20th century. This is part of the reason why it is so difficult to nail the EFF down as fascists, but easy to identify their fascist tendencies.

Intellectually, the EFF’s ideological expressions seem more like a celebration of unreason, and a making-things-up-as-you-go-along type of approach to everything from haemorrhoids to space flight. The only proviso, it seems, is that you blame people who came after the time we all lived in some primordial harmony on the land.

While Julius Malema tends to be somewhat clear in his vitriol, in the sense that you always know what he is saying whether you agree with him or not, his consiglieri, Dr Mbuyiseni Ndlozi often sounds like he was hit over the head with a very large book. Ndlozi often has a middle-distance stare, like a deer caught in a car’s headlights, as if he is wrestling with the concepts that the large book imparted at the point of impact. It is often difficult to untangle the mess of logical fallacies, minimal truths spun as elaborate conspiracies, non-sequiturs, and the wilful obscurantism that Ndlozi spews. He is, to Malema what Giovanni Gentile, or Julius Evola were to Mussolini, but without their gravitas and intellectual depth. Julius (Evola) was a particularly horrible person. I’m sure Ndlozi pats his cat regularly and replaces the toilet roll when it runs out – he can’t be all bad.

And anyway, Ndlozi has captured the hearts of many of our citizens, and Malema has been lionised. At the best of times, the EFF are the greatest benefactors of the miseducation of South Africans. To paraphrase Carter Woodson in The Miseducation of the Negro, Malema indoctrinates his followers with his own interpretation of the crimes of everyone else. It is, therefore, in the interests of the EFF to ensure that misery persists, because it provides him with the basis for perpetual manipulation of the emotions of the poor and the marginalised. One wonder what he will do when we, Africans, return to the time when we lived in peace and harmony on the land. The EFF’s protestations and disruptions are ends in themselves; their only drive seems to be to effect as much change as possible while everything stays the same. That way they can remain a relevant force.

Indeed, to the perpetually irascible among us, Malema seems like a great man of great peace. But, it is hard to avoid thinking about the delightful passage in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra: “Still is the bottom of the Sea: who would guess that it harbours sportive monsters.”

So, 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…”

We would be well advised, then, if we acknowledged the EFF’s appeal to constitutionality during the Zuma years as a tactical manoeuvre. The world’s best-known despots and dictators have always presented themselves as the best hope for their society – until they get into office. Where I come from, in Eldorado Park, we would say: “Hy vat ons vir moegoes.” DM