It was Xolela Mangcu who wrote that “a fascist fire” burns inside Julius Malema. A number of other leading left-wing intellectuals, people like Gillian Hart and Jane Duncan, have also directly stated or implied that they don’t see Malema as a genuinely left-wing figure.
As I have noted before, fascism always has a social agenda. And, as a number of commentators have noted, we should keep in mind that the Nazi party’s first manifesto included a demand for radical land reform. So we shouldn’t assume that a social agenda automatically makes a political project progressive.
Of course, it could certainly be argued that Malema’s politics are a form of authoritarian populism rather than genuine fascism. There are various aspects of the Economic Freedom Fighters’ programme and the various political choices it has made thus far that certainly do not accord with genuine fascism. But it cannot be doubted that Malema as a personality and the EFF as an organisation are both highly authoritarian in nature.
Historically, fascism has often emerged when there are serious social problems and the ruling class is unable to resolve them. When there is corruption and the state is struggling to deal with pressing social issues a strong figure, most often a man, can become attractive to many people. Such a situation can also lead to forms of authoritarian politics that are antidemocratic.
For some years now the government has been arguably paralysed, unable to act decisively in terms of economic policy and in other areas. Problems in education, housing and so on persist. Along with this policy paralysis, there is widespread concern about corruption in the country. This has seriously compromised the standing of the ruling party.
Under these circumstances it is no surprise that for many people, the idea that a strongman could rise up and resolve the social question is very attractive. Indeed, there is something attractive about the way in which Malema has confronted the weakness of Zuma’s leadership.
Yet Malema has also made it clear that he has contempt for the rules of Parliament. We shouldn’t forget that Malema’s political heroes – Robert Mugabe and Muammar Gaddafi – will not go down in history as democrats.
This is cause for concern for all of us who take democracy seriously. It is true that we have not managed to resolve our pressing social problems via the tools that our Constitution and democracy have given us. But it is not true that our Constitution and democracy are barriers to solving social problems. Contrary to what is often stated, the expropriation of land is allowed by the Constitution, despite the property clause.
If the majority of the electorate votes for policies such as radical land reform or the nationalisation of the mines, these goals can be achieved within a democratic framework. If Malema were a democratic leader, he would respect the rules of Parliament and focus on building mass support for his policy proposals. It would then be up to the electorate to endorse or reject those proposals.
Our democracy was a precious breakthrough. We should be exploring ways to use it to achieve social justice rather than using the idea of social justice to oppose democracy. Malema is a symptom of our collective failure to use the democratic opening to achieve social justice.
Stuck, as we are, between Malema’s authoritarianism and the paralysis on policy, not to mention corruption and the indelible stain that the Marikana massacre has left, we have no real way forward to achieve a democratic resolution of our burning social issues such as education, housing and unemployment.
At the moment the only real light in the tunnel, some argue, is the united front that the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) has proposed.
If Numsa can build an alliance of social forces around a democratic and progressive vision, we may be able to restore some kind of real commitment to a democratic alternative on the left to Malema’s authoritarianism. But the Numsa project, which may or may not succeed, will take time to build. And if the opening days of the new Parliament are anything to go by, Malema is well placed to use that institution to build a greater base for his authoritarian politics.
We can’t rely on Numsa alone to build a democratic alternative. Society as a whole needs to pull together and commit to both democracy and to social justice. In the long term, we can’t have democracy without social justice and we can’t have social justice without democracy. It is of the utmost importance that we build a broad consensus around a commitment to social justice and democracy. There is a hard road ahead, but with sufficient commitment from enough people, it is a road that we can take. We made it through the 1980s and we can certainly make it through this crisis.
Imraan Buccus is a research fellow in the school of social sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the academic director of a university study-abroad programme on political transformation