Home-grown SA fascism emerges

Posted on September 2, 2011


As the Rhodes University academic, Jane Duncan, has already noted, the first, loud, trumpet calls to fascism in modern South Africa have been sounded.  They emanate from Julius Malema and the ANC Youth League (ANCYL).  And the recent happenings outside Luthuli House provide confirmation.

It may seem melodramatic to write this, but only because fascism is a little understood, ill-defined term that sends shivers of apprehension through most minds.  It does so because of its association with, particularly, Nazi Germany, the Gestapo and the gas chambers.

But these were particularly horrendous outgrowths of a brand of fascism, they do not define the ideology.  Although there is considerable academic argument about what constitutes fascism, there are common characteristics that make for fascism and the fascist state.  And such states, while authoritarian and intolerant of democratic norms, need not have torture chambers and gulags, let alone practice genocide:  mass obedience and acquiescence is enough with prison, intimidation and exile for any minority that dares complain.

Spain, under Franco, Portugal under Salazar and Italy under Mussolini, were authoritarian and brutal European regimes that did not have extermination camps for Jews, Gypsies and others classified “undesirable”.  Yet they, too, may be classified as fascist.

At the core of this political development lies nationalism and ethnicity; the idea of a single, defined, “national” group claimed to be suffering and denied its birthright as a result of external or corrupt forces.  This idea, of course, ignores the realities of rich and poor, of oppressor and oppressed, exploiter and exploited existing within the same, nationally or ethnically defined groups.  Clear logic is not a strong point in fascist thinking.

Fascism also does not require a formal theoretical manual, an academic fountainhead.  It is a form of political virus that exists in every society marked by inequality and exploitation.  At times of economic growth, stability and general feelings of hope for the future, it is relatively dormant, often to the extent that it is barely noticed, a minor pimple on the backside of the body politic.

It comes into its own at times of crisis and when the existing political order — especially of the liberal, parliamentary variety — is seen widely to be failing and the traditional Left seems ideologically bankrupt and compromised.  It is at such times that the wage and welfare gap and growing unemployment become  more highly politicised.  Trade unions, the basic and largest organisations of the sellers of labour, are pushed into increasing conflict with the employers, both in the private sector and the state.

Even in the absence of any alternative political party advocating radical, democratic, change, such action starts to threaten the status quo and those who benefit from the present order.  In order to protect their interests and investments it is they who turn to the promoters of fascism as a bulwark against the undermining of the system.

This is precisely the role of the ANCYL and its leader Julius Malema who very correctly noted that he and the ANCYL had emerged to “fill a vacuum”.  It is a vacuum created by the failure of existing parties and has led to widespread disillusionment, demoralisation and anger, especially among the alienated youth.  Julius Malema tells them what they want to hear, in the process not just appropriating symbols of the traditional Left, such as the picture of the communist radical, Chris Hani, but also professing to be “the real representatives of the working class”.

But while the huge army of unemployed and often ill-educated youth are his foot soldiers, Malema’s  backers are those wealthy individuals and groups who feel most threatened by the economic climate.  Cloaked in a myth of altruism, the solution he really offers in the name of the poor and dispossessed is a tightening of the authoritarian aspects of our present, very limited, democratic order.  In other words, more of the same, only with the removal of the few concessions to democratic choice and individual rights that we now enjoy.

In the absence of a viable alternative, this is a probable future for South Africa.  Yet an alternative is clearly needed by anyone who wishes to extend democracy and ensure a more just and equitable society.  However, all that is currently on offer are variations on the same theme:  economic panaceas that fail to address the fundamental problems caused by a system based on competition and accumulation.  These also fail to address the political system that serves this economic regime.

Any real alternative must, therefore, offer not just new policies, it must promote a new politics, one that turns the present, hierarchical, system on its head.  This can be done, especially in the South Africa of today, and could provide a model for others to follow.  The basis for such an alternative is our justly envied constitution and Bill of Rights together with access to modern technology that makes almost instant communication with the overwhelming majority of citizens possible.

These two factors provide us with broad policies with which we can probably all agree, together with the means to allow truly democratic decision making about how our constitutional rights should be implemented and upheld.  What it would require is organisation at workplaces, religious institutions and communities;  these could debate and decide on all the matters that concern everyone.  Individuals elected to represent such constituencies could also be made wholly accountable to — and recallable by — those they represent:  no more would we have to experience the farce of spending one minute in a voting booth to make cross or two on voting slips and call it democracy.

The broad policy outlines exist in the Bill of Rights and we have the technological capacity to change the political system in a way that ushers in a much more democratic way of operating.  In addition, we have the material resources to ensure that the policies can be implemented to make for a truly better life for all.  The tools exist as do the means to achieve such a transformation.

At this time of severe global crisis the least we should do is start to debate how to develop the political will and the democratic organisation needed to affect such change.  Alternatively, we can simply muddle on and effectively acquiesce as the crisis deepens and the solutions offered by the radical Right come into play.

Posted in: Commentary