Last year Rhodes University academic Jane Duncan warned of “proto fascism” emerging in South Africa. At the same time, in an article for a local publication, I wrote that “the first loud, trumpet calls to fascism in modern South Africa have been sounded”. Both of us were referring to the actions and statements by, and the apparent financial backing for, the then president of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema.
Last week at the twenty-fourth Socialist International (SI) congress in Cape Town, a similar warning about the threat of fascism was issued. However, this referred to a global danger. And this week, as the local mining industry faced turmoil, National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) spokesperson, Lesiba Seshoka, also raised the spectre of fascism.
If such warnings are considered melodramatic, it can only be because fascism is a little understood, ill-defined term that tends to send shivers of apprehension through most minds. It does so because of its association with, particularly, Nazi Germany and gas chambers. But Hitler’s Germany was a particularly horrendous outgrowth of fascism; an extreme version of the ideology in practice.
Authoritarian and intolerant of democratic norms, fascism does not need to indulge in genocide to exist: the destruction of democratic structures, with mass obedience and acquiescence ensured by prison terms, intimidation and enforced exile is enough. Invariably, at the apex of what is a political pyramid, is the Leader.
This ideology exists as a form of political virus in every society marked by inequality and exploitation. In 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.
At the core of fascist thinking are concepts of nationalism and ethnicity, of the notion of a single, defined, “national” group needing to be led to be led out of suffering caused by external or corrupt forces. It is an idea that ignores the realities of rich and poor, of oppressor and oppressed, exploiter and exploited existing within the same, nationally or ethnically defined groups. As such fascists are hostile to organisations such as trade unions that, for all their faults, usually uphold collective and egalitarian principles.
But authoritarian thinking and its political extension of fascism, can come into their 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.
The labour movement, internationally, has recognised for several years that such times are very much with us; times when demagogues emerge to prey on the insecurities, anger and fears of vulnerable workers in a way that often catapults would-be leaders to prominence.
This theme of a world in ongoing and politically dangerous crisis dominated the SI congress that came and went in Cape Town last week with scarcely a whimper, let alone a bang. And with no South African trade unionists in sight.
However, the more than 100 political parties and groups from around the world confirmed everything the labour movement has been saying for years about the global economy. Ironically, the voice of labour has also often been in opposition to many parties that are members of this extraordinarily diverse body that professes the democratic principles and “socialism” espoused by most trade unions.
If the ANC, the host member of the SI, is a broad church, the SI qualifies as a veritable Tower of ideological Babel. But, in most cases, the representative parties and groups owe — or at least once owed — their origins or support to organised workers.
This means that even parties in opposition to one another on a national level can be members. In Mauritius, for example, the governing Labour Party is a member alongside the opposition Mauritian Militant Movement. And in Mali, an umbrella movement — Adema-PASJ — that brings together four political parties, has a seat at the SI table.
Former East European communist parties that have altered their outlooks, although not necessarily many of their leaders, also now march under the SI banner. Yet there seems to be unanimous — in some cases, perhaps belated — agreement among all SI members that the global economic crisis has far from run its course; that much turbulence still lies ahead.
With this conclusion comes the analysis that trickle-down, neo-liberal, Washington consensus policies have failed. To which the labour movement can chorus: we told you so. Except that it and the political Left have done little to fill the vaccuum created, leaving the way open to the demagogic Right that, in South Africa, has a distinctly local flavour.
According to striking miners at Gold Fields, for example, they have been assured at meetings that “the Chinese are just waiting to come in” should their strikes cause mine closures. The assumption is that Chinese investors will happily meet all the demands of labour.
However, if those workers who have been told to look east for economic salvation could consult their comrades in Zambia, they might have a different view: there has been a less than happy relationship there on many Chinese-owned mines. Or they could attend the screening of China Blue, a much-hailed 2005 documentary that is one of the “best of the decade” films to be screened at the Tri Continental human rights Film Festival that opens in Johannesburg today (subs: Friday) and in Cape Town next week.
China Blue is perhaps unique in that it was shot over a year. It follows the progress of a young rural teenager working in what was regarded as one of the better garment factories in that country.
Like the SI and the unions, it provides no answers, but reveals clearly why South African workers cannot compete with their Chinese counterparts — and why they should not wish to do so.