By Imraan Buccus
The world is reeling from the senseless killing of 50 Muslims while they performed their Friday prayers at 2 mosques in Christchurch recently. Unlike other leaders; Prime Minister Jacinta Adern has shown exceptional leadership; with messages of compassion and solidarity to the families of victims of the extremist act. Video footage of her embracing those affected by the tragedy have gone viral.
Barely mentioning the name of the killer, Adern reiterated that he was ‘not us’. Unlike many right wing strongmen in the world today, Adern’s leadership will go a long way in the struggle against the emerging right wing, anti-immigrant current in New Zealand.
Her style is a challenge to the toxic right wing leadership in many parts of the world today. For starters we know that the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro is a disaster for Brazil and for democrats and progressives around the world. Bolsonaro is a right-wing strongman in the mould of Narendra Modi of India, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Viktor Orbán of Hungary. Like Modi, he is regularly described as a fascist.
And we all know about Trump’s right wing populism and his policy plan of a ‘Muslim ban’ in recent times. Under Trump we know there has been a steep incline in anti-Muslim feelings in the US. Numerous incidents of Islamophobia and hate have been reported recently; including one where a teacher in the South was left a note telling her to hang herself with her hijab; which ‘isn’t allowed anymore.’
Trump has expressed feelings of Islamophobia, racism, xenophobia, global warming denialism and is a man who does not have the temperament for any kind of public office. He is now the most powerful man on the planet.
There is no doubt a shift to the right in the world today. A number of commentators have argued that this disaster was first presaged with the election of the corrupt right wing millionaire, Silvia Berlusconi, in Italy. They have a point. Berlusconi, like Trump, is a millionaire with appalling ethics and no regard for the truth. It does make some sense to point to the election of Berlusconi as the arrival of ‘post-truth’ politics in Western democracies.
But Trump is also part of a more contemporary wave of right wing, sometimes neo-fascist, authoritarian populists that have been elected to power around the world. This also includes Benjamin Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte. And politicians like Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen.
This wave of far right wing, sometimes neo-fascist, authoritarian populism is usually organized around charismatic and often demagogic figures, pretends to be on the side of the people and blames vulnerable groups, often ethnic or religious minorities, for the economic crisis caused by unrestrained capitalism. It has made very effective use of social media to whip up fears and anger. This has often taken the form of organized and well-funded attempts to push ‘post-truth’ propaganda through social media outlets. In this context, it comes as no surprise that the New Zealand killer blamed Muslim immigrants; and saw his act as one where he was trying to ‘save his people’.
We are also confronting authoritarian populism in South Africa; albeit a different form. Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema are both authoritarian populists. Authoritarian populism has also displaced more democratic forms of politics among students on some campuses. Figures like Zuma, Malema and former student leader Mcebo Dlamini are all demagogues trying to mobilise nationalist sentiment to bolster their own authority and power. They all present themselves as men of the people and they all have alarmingly authoritarian tendencies. Dlamini’s disregard for the truth is quite extraordinary. Malema’s recent invocation of the specter of genocide is chilling.
We, like many countries in the world, including the United States, are in a very dangerous juncture. There are a number of reasons why so many societies have succumbed to authoritarian populism. The most important reason for the turn away from democratic and progressive values is that the extreme form of neoliberal capitalism supported by the likes of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, and before them Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan, has plunged millions into destitution while the new managerial class has grown excessively wealthy.
The left has failed to win a critical mass of support for an understanding of the crisis built around economic justice. But the right has been extremely successful in stoking various kinds of prejudices that result in Muslims being blamed for the crisis in India, Mexicans and Muslims in the United States, immigrants, including Poles, in the United Kingdom and so on. And now New Zealand.
This has been supported by the decline of the traditional media and the rise of social media that is vulnerable to the proliferation of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ analysis and opinion.
In South Africa we are already quite far down the rabbit hole. If we are going to avoid hitting rock bottom we need to take urgent action to turn things around. The first step is to understand that millions of people face a serious economic crisis and to take effective steps to begin to resolve it. Lazy sloganeering by the left has not helped.
The breakdown of the consensus that draws all the main parties towards the centre in these two countries is largely a result of the financial crisis that began in 2008.
If Trump and other leaders are able to spread their politics of hate and fear into the mainstream, life will become very difficult for Muslims and immigrants in many parts of the world. And in view of the global power of American culture, is not impossible that it could begin to affect life here in South Africa too.
We all have a stake in the progressive project that is being organised against the hate-mongers in New Zealand, America, Australia and across Europe.
The great challenge of our time is to rebuild a democratic and inclusive left that can build a more just world.
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.