The EFF represents a clear and urgent danger to democracy
Zuma was bad enough, but the prospect of a President Malema should spur SA to action - and that includes a social compact to lessen the appeal of demagogues
Many of SA's leading intellectuals and activists have argued that Julius Malema's mixture of racial-nationalism and authoritarianism, in the context of a militarised and demagogic personality cult, is proto-fascist.
As early as 2010, social activist Zackie Achmat, in a prescient article on emerging fascism in SA, wrote that "Malema is a dangerous and popular decoy for people in the state and powerful ANC leaders linked to business. They aim to cement their power, weaken democracy and extract every ounce of fat from the state. They use the anger of the unemployed, alloy it with sexism, patriarchy and envy to create a movement."
Malema comes out of the authoritarian nationalist, and often corrupt, current of the ANC associated with figures like Peter Mokaba and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. This current, which was marginal 20 years ago, has become very powerful indeed. It found its first champion in Jacob Zuma and has found a second in Malema.
At the height of the generalised opposition to Zuma, Malema suddenly dropped much of his fascist rhetoric and appeared as a constitutionalist. Although he only had a tiny percentage of the vote, the media, ignoring his history of corruption and authoritarianism, presented him as if he was a major and credible figure in our politics.
Malema's willingness to make outrageous statements is always good for clicks. And, much like the US media's hunger for clicks supported Donald Trump's rise to power, our media have turned a marginal figure into a person whose political influence far exceeds his electoral support.
In the aftermath of the VBS Bank scandal, Malema and others in his party have abandoned their brief flirtation with constitutionalism and turned to outright authoritarianism and dishonesty, including dangerous attacks on the media.
It has become clear that Malema's rivalry with Zuma was a contest for power, and not opposition to Zumaism. Since the removal of Zuma from the presidency, Malema has emerged as a champion of the Zuma network and has been the most vigorous defender of the most corrupt people in that network. Even the most naïve can now see that Malema aims to become the next Zuma.
The tactics used by Malema come straight from Zuma's playbook. Hypernationalism, often collapsing into racism, is used to excuse corruption, and critics are slandered, harassed and intimidated into silence. As has often been noted, the EFF has morphed into a much bigger, and therefore more dangerous, version of Andile Mngxitama's tiny pro-Zuma and pro-Gupta propaganda outfit Black First Land First.
When the EFF was chanting "pay back the money" in parliament its members seemed like defenders of democracy and decency. Now its scurrilous attacks on the media, and other individuals and institutions, make it seem like Trump on steroids. The way that its Twitter mob goes after critics is reminiscent of how fascism operates in India.
The EFF's descent into Trumpian levels of dishonesty, and gross personal attacks on its critics, is a cancer eating into our democracy. Every time it is allowed to slander a journalist, others moderate their criticism out of fear. This is the road to a cowed society in which thuggery, and not reason, wins the day.
The removal of Zuma from office was a major battle in the struggle for our democracy. But the war continues and Malema is the new leader of forces that aim to subvert democracy and use racial-nationalism as a mask behind which they can plunder the state.
The forces that coalesced to oppose Zuma had a glaring weakness - their elitism. With NGOs and business in the forefront, and figures like Sipho Pityana and Mark Heywood in the lead, they could always be presented as a project really aimed at defending elite interests. The failure to allow trade unions and social movements to take the lead in opposing Zuma was a serious political mistake.
The EFF is building an alliance in support of corruption, and against basic democracy norms and practices, which crosses party lines to include the EFF and the Zuma faction of the ANC. The forces that oppose corruption and support democracy must also build alliances across parties and organisations.
Recently, thousands gathered in Johannesburg to pray against corruption. Almost every day communities take to the streets in protest against corruption. These are the social forces that should be given space to take a key role in building a new united front in support of democracy and against corruption.
Without a social compact that can ensure at least some sort of social justice, democracy will always be vulnerable to demagogues. It is vital that, as we build a new alliance in support of democracy and against Malema and the Zuma network, we ensure that it places the question of social justice at the centre.
The lines are now clearly drawn. The period when there was some ambiguity about the politics of the EFF has passed. We now confront a clear and urgent threat to our democracy.
In a global context in which right-wing demagogues have risen to power in many societies, it would be a grave danger to underestimate the risk that Malema and the EFF pose to our society. The Zuma years bought us to the brink of disaster. It will take a generation to fix the damage inflicted on our society. We simply cannot afford to be dragged back into the abyss.
It is now of the utmost urgency that we build the broadest possible consensus in support of democracy, clean governance and social justice, and against corruption and authoritarianism.
No-one who stands up to the thuggery of the EFF should feel that they are alone. Every time a journalist, or other critic, comes under attack from the EFF Twitter mob they must know that they have the support of the democratic majority.
If we don't take real action now, we run a real risk of ending up in an even worse situation than the electoral disasters that have befallen countries like the US and Brazil. President Malema would be an infinitely greater disaster than President Zuma.
• Buccus is senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute, a research fellow in the school of social sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and academic director of a university study-abroad programme on political transformation..