Julius Malema: A fascist or racial nationalist?

18 March 2018 - 00:00 By Milton Shain
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EFF's CIC Julius Malema.
EFF's CIC Julius Malema.
Image: Alaister Russell

That Julius Malema and his EFF share much with the fascists of the previous century cannot be gainsaid: a muscular and integral nationalism, a sense of racial exclusivity, a commitment to destroy political enemies, a wish to reorganise the economy, an authoritarian leadership, and at least a hint of militarism.

Even the EFF's penchant for uniforms harks back to the Brownshirts of Hitler's Germany and the Blackshirts of Mussolini's Italy, as does Malema's redemptive and at times racist rhetoric.

But Malema operates in a very different context. Unlike the original fascists, those he appeals to are not anxious about modernity or fearful of the left. To be sure, Malema comes from the left, or at least claims to.His concern is historical injustice. More than that, he is comfortable with existing state institutions, appreciates nonviolent parliamentary methods and welcomes judicial independence, a free press and free elections.

There is, then, much about Malema that is not fascist. He slots far better into the category of racial nationalist, with populist leanings. Distinctions between left and right matter less for him than the cleavage between elites and "the people". In this he employs the language of Marine le Pen and Geert Wilders. Identity and exclusion inform his politics. Importantly, his rhetoric is Africanist in a racist sense.

Rhetoric of this sort can cement cracks among the majority (the insiders) and paper over class divisions. It is seductive. It strikes the right chord and resonates with our history by revealing apartheid's legacies. But such rhetoric threatens to undermine the fragile "Rainbow Nation".

Given our demography and our past, racial nationalism is perhaps inevitable. Tolerance was, however, sufficiently deep (thanks in part to the Freedom Charter) to construct the "Rainbow Nation" in 1994. But this social contract unravelled, initially under President Thabo Mbeki. A more threatening discourse began, one that defined who was in and who was out. We have seen this vividly in anti-Indian and anti-coloured rhetoric, in xenophobic action and violence against foreigners and, more latterly, in a discourse that targets whites.

As early as 2002 Mbongeni Ngema released an anti-Indian song, AmaiNiya, and five years later, Fikile Mbalula, then ANC Youth League president, contended that transformation had turned the University of KwaZulu-Natal "into nothing but Bombay". In similar vein, Mzwanele Manyi suggested that there were too many Indians in KwaZulu-Natal, and an "over-concentration" of coloureds in the Western Cape.

Malema, too, appears to be ready to punt racial nationalism by employing identity politics when seeking scapegoats. In 2010, when he was leader of the ANC Youth League, he made references to amakula (a derogatory term for Indians) and, more recently, he has described whites as central to South Africa's problems. He even added the qualification "at least not for now" after claiming that blacks were not calling for the slaughter of whites.

"No white person," he says, "is a rightful owner of land in South Africa and the whole of the African continent." As far as he is concerned, whites unhappy with expropriation of land without compensation can "go to hell".

Malema's discourse reflects wider intellectual currents. But his oeuvre is not classically fascist. He shares none of the innovative thinking associated with serious fascist thinkers. On the other hand, as was the case with many European fascists, Malema's political instincts are impressive. He shares with them an ability to build alliances and co-operate with elites. Political space is, after all, necessary for success. His populism and hostility towards whites find fertile ground in a society with glaring racial inequality and poverty.

Today Malema holds a sword over whites. Will he abandon respect for democratic liberties in a violent search for redemption and internal cleansing? We do not know.

What we do know is that historically the trajectory of each fascist movement has been related to the national context, cultural traditions and contingent circumstances. Malema knows and understands this well.

Shain is emeritus professor in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town

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