By Imraan Buccus
Democracy is the lifeblood of any genuinely progressive project. A genuine progressive always works to build a culture of open and free debate and discussion. This is one of the central distinctions between real socialism, always a radically democratic project, and national socialism, always an authoritarian project that substitutes democratic practices for authoritarianism legitimated by rhetoric about unity based on blood and soil.
As the great radical thinker Rosa Luxemburg insisted “Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element.” Luxemburg also insisted that ““Freedom only for the members of the government, only for the members of the Party – though they are quite numerous – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently.”
One of the many early warning signs about the political nature of the personality cult built around Julius Malema was Malema’s disgraceful hyper-masculinist intimidation of a British journalist in 2010. Floyd Shivambu’s equally disgraceful recent attack on a journalist shows that Malema’s conduct was not an aberration. There is a systemic problem of authoritarianism and thuggery in the EFF.
Ironically the EFF is, to a very significant extent, a creation of the media. It has often been observed that the EFF, not unlike forms of populism elsewhere in the world (e.g., Italy, India, the USA etc.). garners huge media attention, almost as a form of entertainment, because controversy attracts large audiences. The party has a very small fraction of the vote but a huge percentage of media attention. This creates the false impression that the party enjoys huge electoral support, and is a real force on the ground. These false impressions, created by a media desperate to win audiences, help the party to win votes. Media attention, driven by sensationalism, can be turned into real power.
This is why presenting a political project as if it were entertainment carries real dangers, and results in a lack of proper critique. We should not forget that figures like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and Donald Trump in the United States rode a wave of media interest into the real political power. It is not impossible that the EFF’s strategy of making outrageous statements in order to win media attention could enable the party to grow its electoral support, in the same way that this worked for Trump.
Serious thought need to be given to the political character of the EFF. It is clearly a form of authoritarianism populism with a strongly masculinist element. The question is whether or not it is a form of authoritarian and masculinist nationalism that has some progressive elements, or whether it is a fascist project using left wing images and terminology.
Berkeley Professor Gill Hart provided the first serious attempt to make theoretical sense of the EFF in her important 2013 book Rethinking the South African Crisis: Nationalism, Populism, Hegemony. As has been noted the book contains some regrettable empirical errors in its discussion of social movements. However it is a theoretically sophisticated text that was the first to suggest that the EFF may be understood as a potentially fascist organisation. Later on Jane Duncan, in her work as a journalist, reached similar conclusions. More recently Wits VC Adam Habib has arrived at a similar analysis. Various political formulations, most notably the SACP but including some small left groups, have arrived at a similar conclusion.
However a lot of time has passed, and much has transpired, since the publication of Hart’s book. The EFF continues to make statements and to operate in a manner that is well described as ‘authoritarian populism’, and arguably fascist. It is certainly a sexist, racist and authoritarian project largely organised around a mediatised form of demagogic charisma. Recently it has also collapsed into gross xenophobia in the form of Shivambu’s questions in Parliament about Malusi Gigaba’s place of birth. Sexism, racism, xenophobia and authoritarianism are all typical of the right, including the far right and fascist forms of politics.
However the EFF has also won widespread public sympathy for taking on Jacob Zuma as a ‘Constitutional delinquent’. This does complicate matters. No fascist is a liberal Constitutionalist. Fascism substitutes liberal Constitutions with the idea, rooted in rhetoric of blood and soil, and historical grievance, that an authoritarian and usually semi-militarised and violent party should suspend the rule of law and act in what it claims are the interests of the people.
But the party’s turn to the Constitution does not mark a permanent shift towards accepting liberal democratic rules. The recent attacks on shops is, from Europe in the 1930s to contemporary India, a typical fascist tactic. However, the turn to the Constitution does complicate simplistic forms of analysis. The most logical readings of this seem to be those that either conclude that the EFF is simply opportunistic (a phenomenon not unknown in fascist politics) or that it is contradictory.
My own analysis currently points towards the conclusion that the EFF is both opportunistic and contradictory and that its authoritarian populism does include fascists elements but that the EFF as a whole cannot be described as a stable and coherent fascist project. In other words the EFF is opportunistic in that it is willing to change tack when it feels that adopting a new position will win it public attention. We saw this, for instance, in how the party quickly dropped its support for Mugabe when it finally realised that the masses of the Zimbabwean people had rejected Mugabe. The fascist elements in the party – its militaristic image, its masculinism, its racial and nationalistic chauvinism, its authoritarianism – are clear. But the opportunism that characterises the party means that it is not ideological fixated in the manner of true fascism. If the party can win media interest and public support but displaying its support for the Constitution it is willing to do so.
So while the EFF is clearly a danger to the progressive project and cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be seen as a democratic socialist project, the nature of its opportunism means that it is not a coherent and stable fascist project.
Imraan Buccus is Al Qalam editor, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation. Buccus promotes #Reading Revolution via Books@Antique at Antique Café in Morningside