Richard Pithouse, SACSIS
Being against [one form of] evil doesn't make you good.
- Ernest Hemingway, Islands in the Stream, 1952
Over the last ten years or so there has been an extraordinary degree of popular protest in South Africa. The seemingly incorrigible elitism of the higher reaches of our public sphere has meant that, particularly in the absence of sustained formal organisation, popular protest has seldom won the right to represent itself in this space. For years the media, NGOs, academy and political parties were able to substitute the presentation of their own assumptions, frequently inflected with crude stereotypes, for rational and democratic engagement. However now that the scale and tenacity of popular dissent is being more widely recognised there is an astonishing array of actors trying to capture it, or bits of it, including political parties, NGOs, activists of various sorts, minor political sects, entrepreneurs, tenderpreneurs and people with religious, ethnic and cultural projects.
Neither popular protest nor successful attempts to capture it automatically translate into progressive politics. Popular protest has often aligned itself with deeply reactionary forms of politics, frequently mediated through religion, ethnicity and hyper-masculinity. There are also examples of corrupt and authoritarian states that have been able to renew their legitimacy by making targeted concessions to popular protest. But there are also important examples of sustained popular protest producing progressive movements, enabling progressive forces to capture state power and achieve real social progress.
The Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have already entered the electoral fray and rumour suggests that the metal workers’ union (NUMSA) is likely to break from COSATU and make its own entry into electoral politics. None of these organisations have emerged from the community struggles that have developed over the last ten years. But all of them, including NUMSA if it does break from COSATU and form a new party, will want to capture popular struggles in communities as well as workplaces, and elsewhere.
Julius Malema’s charisma and notoriety, and the EFF’s connection to the struggle in Marikana, which has given the party some real political weight, has enabled the party to achieve significant media access and some political traction. It’s too early to say with any certainty how this will translate into electoral performance. But it’s not too early to draw some conclusions on the nature of the party’s project and its likely effect on our political landscape. However, it is necessary to keep in mind that all political organisations are in a state of constant flux and subject to all kinds of limits and influences. It’s not impossible that the EFF could be changed in significant ways by the popular struggles it is seeking to capture, by the alliances it makes, internal contestation, changes in our broader political landscape or the nature of electoral politics.
A number of commentators have argued that the EFF is essentially a fascist project. However its policy proposals, which are sometimes rather crude, are clearly situated in a left tradition that, while it is plainly authoritarian and deeply statist, is not fascist. No fascist organisation proposes support for immigrants and opposition to homophobia and patriarchy.
However the party’s policy proposals are clearly presented via a militaristic posture that is, along with being inherently authoritarian, also inherently masculinist. As Siphokazi Magadla has argued the dangers of this mode of politics should not be taken lightly. The political theatre that Malema performed at the court when his hate speech case was heard in April 2011 did evoke shades of Mussolini in many people’s minds and certainly created the impression that his conception of power is rooted more in force than consent.
Moreover, there is a massive gulf between the stated principles of the EFF and the behaviour of its key figures whose record is one of gross sexism, thuggish authoritarianism, demagogic rather than rational engagement, brazen corruption and a performance of social power rooted in consumerism. Unless evidence emerges of a genuine Damascene conversation, or unless the EFF attains a genuine capacity to discipline its leaders from below, it would be entirely naïve to assume that Julius Malema really is aspiring to be the next Thomas Sankara. We would, to say the least, be unwise not to recall how the ANC Youth League, the National Youth Development Agency and the public purse in Limpopo were plundered.
Malema did not step into the EFF from a sustained commitment to popular struggle. His politics is that of an authoritarian man at the helm of a party state and not that of a mobilised citizenry. He aspires to concentrate power in the state rather than to disperse it to the people. Under Malema the ANC Youth League looked to figures like Gaddafi, Mugabe and even Kim Jong II rather than, say, the popular movements that were transforming Latin America from below. Malema was, he said, willing to kill for Zuma. But when he had Zuma’s favour he never said a word against the brazen and brutal repression of grassroots activists under Zuma.
Malema only turned to popular struggle in search of a constituency when the ANC turned on him. In COSATU’s estimation he was on the party’s right wing before his relationship with Zuma broke down. There are those who disagree and argue that the ANC Youth League’s support for nationalisation under Malema means that he was really on the left all along. This is a facile reduction, not uncommon in certain kinds of crude and dogmatic leftism, of the political to a single economic question – the mode of ownership of the means of production. The fact is that nationalisation was a key plank in the original programme of the Nazi party. It has also been used by various appallingly authoritarian regimes that have presented themselves in the language of the left, including the North Korean monarchy supported “unapologetically” by the ANC Youth League under Malema.
Of course there are also many cases where nationalisation has played an important role in socialising economies. But nationalisation is not an inherently progressive project. In 1961 Frantz Fanon argued that “the nationalization of the economy” and “Africanization of offices” was a key demand of the most predatory factions of what he called the national bourgeoisie. Fanon was certainly not against nationalisation or deracialisation, but he was very clear that for predatory elites “nationalization does not mean placing the totality of the economy at the service of the nation…as an expression of new social relations…..To them, nationalization quite simply means the transfer into native hands of those unfair advantages, which are a legacy of the colonial period.”
Ato Sekyi-Otu, the most brilliant and careful reader yet of Fanon’s last work, The Wretched of the Earth, shows that Fanon goes on to argue that this kind of nationalism is “a profoundly anti-political ideology”. In Sekyi-Otu’s estimation what Fanon proposes is “the upsurge of richer modes of reasoning, judging and acting” than the “brutality of thought” that can emerge from an immediate response to colonial horror. For Sekyi-Otu a Fanonion politics is rooted, precisely, in ‘new social relations’ that can restore “dignity to all citizens …. and create a prospect that is human because conscious and sovereign persons dwell therein”. Malema’s politics is a world apart from this. He mobilises the language of Stalinism to approach the citizenry as ‘the masses’, as a kind of battering ram wielded by leaders. The fact that this mode of politics may offer a route into a certain kind of respect for some young men cast adrift from hope in a society grounded in contempt for their equal humanity does not make it progressive.