OPINIONISTA

Imraan Buccus: Let’s have an honest conversation about Malema – and racism

It has become clear that in the absence of a principled commitment to non-racialism, the end of “rainbowism” is nothing but a collapse into competing chauvinisms.

We need to have a sober, honest and politically principled conversation about Julius Malema, the Economic Freedom Fighters and race. One entry point for this conversation is that we must acknowledge that the “rainbowism” of the 1994 moment masked the extent to which racism continues to permeate our society in terms of individual attitudes and social structures. This is not exclusively a problem of white racism. Black racisms also fester in our society, including anti-African racism among some Indian people.

The question, though, is what we do about the reality that racism continues to scar our society and that “rainbowism” masked this rather than allowing us to deal with it openly and honestly. An important point to make here is that the conflation of “rainbowism” and “non-racialism” by the Fallists was a fundamental mistake. 

Rainbowism” is the denial of racism. Non-Racialism is the opposite – it is a principled commitment to end racism, and to build a society that transcends the toxic colonial inheritance of race. “Rainbowism” did try to co-opt the radical language of non-racialism for its own purposes but non-racialism is not, at all, the same thing as “rainbowism”.

Non-racialism was first developed in the Black Consciousness movement and then, later on, via the United Democratic Front, brought into the Congress tradition. It means that in struggle, people are judged in terms of their political commitments, and that the goal of struggle is to put an end to racism, and, ultimately, the very idea of race itself.

We must abandon “rainbowism” and have an honest confrontation with the many ways in which racism continues to fester in our society. However, throwing out non-racism as a political principle is not the way forward. It has become clear that in the absence of a principled commitment to non-racialism the end of “rainbowism” is nothing but a collapse into competing chauvinisms.

Malema and the EFF don’t always lend themselves to clear political definitions. This is largely because both Malema and his party are, fundamentally, opportunists. Their positions are not anchored in principle and shift with the winds. Malema himself was implicated in serious corruption but then became an anti-corruption crusader. Malema did not pay tax and then campaigned for an efficient and effective state. Malema was a key actor in the coalition that bought Zuma to power, and then he turned on Zuma. The EFF has sometimes rallied behind the Constitution and at other times has expressed the sort of authoritarianism that is better suited to North Korea than a democracy. The EFF has taken Pan-African positions and then engaged in gross forms of xenophobia.

What we can say for sure about the EFF is that they propose a set of economic policies that would turn South Africa into a wasteland within a year. We can also conclude that while they sometimes speak like Constitutionalists, their politics is largely a form of authoritarian populism. Of course authoritarian populism comes in different forms. There is an ongoing debate as to whether or not the EFF should be seen as fascist.

Those who dismiss this debate out of hand because they can’t understand that fascism can appear in black politics, or in the global South, are fundamentally misinformed. Fascism has certainly appeared in Africa. Mahmood Mamdani’s important 1977 book, Imperialism and Fascism in Uganda, shows this clearly. Today the largest fascist movement on the planet is the Hindu right in India.

There are aspects of the EFF’s conduct, and statements that it has made, that can and should be described as fascist. It’s militaristic political image, the cult around its leader, its authoritarianism, its xenophobia, its sexism and its racial chauvinism are all typical of fascist movements. However, the EFF is not consistently fascist. There was certainly nothing fascist about holding Zuma to account in the name of the Constitution. The EFF is therefore, an unstable and contradictory political project with fascist elements.

Its authoritarian populism should be understood as a local version of a global response to the crisis of capitalism that includes right-wing movements in India, the USA, Australia, Italy and Greece. But the way in which it abuses real issues around race and racism for opportunistic ends is very different to how racism and xenophobia have been exploited and encouraged by the right in Europe and the USA. The EFF does not, of course, represent an elite against marginalised groups. On the contrary the EFF speaks in the name of the oppressed.

However, there is a crucial political difference between naming a real issue, such as the racism that does fester in the Indian community, in order to address it in a positive and progressive way, and naming an issue in order to exploit it, in a reckless and dangerous manner, for narrow short-term gain in terms of media attention. Malema and the EFF are clearly taking the second road, a road that is already having highly damaging consequences for our society. Already, public figures perceived to be Indian receive death threats, torrents of abuse and instructions to “go back to India” when they enter the public sphere.

This is typical of the kinds of social media driven abuse that characterise fascist politics in a country like India. It is deeply reactionary and anti-democratic. The EFF are clearly complicit in driving this kind of abuse, much of which is perpetrated in their name.

However, we must remember that it is “rainbowism” and the abject failure of the ANC to have honest conversations about racism that have opened the way for the reckless and dangerous conduct of the EFF. The EFF must be opposed by all democratic and progressive forces in South Africa. They may not be a fully-fledged fascist project but they could easily move in that direction. But the progressive answer to the appalling conduct of the EFF is not a return to the suppression of open and honest discussion about racism. It is vital that we have that discussion, and deal with racism effectively, including black forms of racism.

If the progressive forces in South Africa are not able to deal with racism, we will leave an untreated and festering wound for opportunists like Malema to exploit. DM

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