Following Julius Malema's recent comment, that he intended to "cut the throat of whiteness", by removing DA mayor Athol Trollip in Nelson Mandela Bay, I wrote on 7 March that the EFF leader, "can rightly be described as a fascist".
Subsequent to that article, a number of other columnists decried Malema's racist vitriol. On 8 March, Financial Mail Deputy Editor Sikonathi Mantshantsha wrote that, "Racist Malema no longer a joke". On 10 March, William Sauderson-Meyer wrote that it was, "time to challenge Malema's toxic politics". On 12 March, Wits Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib, wrote that, "The EFF is also no different from the proto-fascist movements in Western Europe and the United States." And, on 14 March, former DA leader Tony Leon, asked, "Why does Malema's race threat go unpunished?"
One way or the other, Malema's hyper-racial rhetoric in 2018, is significant both in its intensity and frequency. A threshold has been crossed and, if it carries on like this, perceptions will change soon enough.
All of this is to be welcomed. For too long the media and the commentariat have indulged too kindly Malema's various poisonous prejudices, in favour of the sensation and interest they generate. But, there seems now to be a growing consensus that the party – and its leader in particular – is infected with a very particular and focused brand of hate, that it is dangerous and that there is a moral duty to speak out against it.
None of it has, to date, had much of an effect on Malema himself, who last week tweeted in response to Trollip, "Hahaha, you are going white man. I've got no sympathy for whiteness, it feels so good for a black child to determine the future of the white one." But then these sorts of changes in perception take time. It took five years until public momentum against Jacob Zuma began to translate into an actual change in voter behaviour. One way or the other, Malema's hyper-racial rhetoric in 2018, is significant both in its intensity and frequency. A threshold has been crossed and, if it carries on like this, perceptions will change soon enough. Ultimately, he will not be able to avoid it.
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Malema's remark, that "it feels so good" for him to be able to determine the future of a white man is, however, worth interrogating further. It is deeply revealing on a psychological level. It speaks to a desperately low sense of self-esteem, grounded in a deep insecurity about his race and station. The sort of perverse satisfaction Malema claims he feels – one driven by racial animus and contempt – is inversely proportionate to one's sense of self-worth. The smaller the latter, the bigger the former. And Malema's sense of personal pride and confidence must be a weak and fragile, bitter and twisted little voice indeed, that shouts commands to him from the back of his subconscious.
It is sad, in that sense, to see a political leader so controlled by his damaged psychology. He is a raging Id, an instinctual creature subservient to emotion impulse; one who has long since destroyed his Super Ego; in turn, any ability properly to regulate his passions, at whose command his Ego now serves. It is true, he has for some time managed at least to subdue all that anger, in the order that he might maintain the pretence rationality has a bearing on those final positions he adopts.
Conversely, it is humiliation Malema seeks in his enemies. He does not wish to see them downed in the battle of ideas, but shamed and embarrassed, subservient and deferential, primarily on the basis of their race.
Conversely, it is humiliation Malema seeks in his enemies. He does not wish to see them downed in the battle of ideas, but shamed and embarrassed, subservient and deferential, primarily on the basis of their race. Thus, ironically, Malema is without humility himself, arrogant and absolutist. Even those mistakes he cannot escape, he presents as triumphs, either of revisionism or self-awareness. He is shameless and, from that, without empathy or compassion. In its place, only rage, the universal emotional surrogate for every sublimated element of his entire emotional repertoire, the driving force behind his desire for manifest humiliation in those that oppose him.
But this is not just Malema's rationale. It is the EFF's more broadly. Infused into its ideology – a mess of contradictory ideas and political philosophies all merged together under the banner "revolutionary thought" – it is evident also in the conduct and positions adopted by so many of its representatives and supporters. Nowhere more so than when it comes to criticism, which the party detests with a rage that glows white hot with the heat of resentment. One need only look at how EFF supporters conduct themselves on social media, how they spit and froth at the mouth when rebuked and how their only rebuff is inevitably no more than racial bigotry and slander.
They mirror and exaggerate the behaviour they see in their leaders.
But that too makes sense. The EFF is, ultimately, a mere extension of Malema's personality. It was forged by him, in his own image. A monument to one man. And it has adopted his personality as a result. Most political parties take on, in one form or another, the personality traits of their leader. But, through time and change, they have a set of other influences – previous leaders and external set of voices, wise elders, who have helped shape the party – to keep it focused on principle. The EFF, barely five years old, has none of that. There is only Malema, inside and outside the party, he is the Alpha and the Omega, and the EFF's heart beats in time with his own.
His personality, and by extension that of the EFF, is fascist one.
Writing for the New York Review of Books in 1955, in an article titled Ur-Fascism, the late Italian philosopher Umberto Eco listed the features of fascism, as he had experienced it under Mussolini. Eco had noted, "Contrary to common opinion, fascism in Italy had no special philosophy", an observation particularly important when it comes to the EFF.
Let us take an abridged version of his list and apply it to the EFF.
1. The cult of tradition
Eco writes: "One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements."
So many of the EFF's ideological icons demonstrate this "cultish" attribute. From Stalin and Mao, both cited in EFF official documentation, to lesser known "revolutionaries" like Che Guevara and Thomas Sankara. All of them placed great emphasis on tradition, history and the "true", "authentic" culture and practice of the people whose will they claimed to embody. At home, icons like Steve Biko – who wrote much about what does and not define a "real black" - are used as the custodians of tradition and icons around which the EFF shapes its message. The EFF might not as of yet published its equivalent of Mao's Little Red Book, but one could easily stitch one together using Malema's quotes with him as the ultimate custodian of black identity.
2. The rejection of modernism
Eco writes:"The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism."
Malema's dictum, that all politics is pragmatic, is a fundamental rejection of the values and principles that tend to underpin a human rights-based, constitutional democracy, defined by a series of universal ethical norms and standards. He, like Zuma before him, sees the modern world as encroaching on the traditional and fundamental rights of black South Africans, which he regards as determined by history, not the Bill of Human Rights. To this end, he seeks to take the South African state backwards, to an agrarian utopia, where "the people" work the land and the economy devolves down to its most basic conception. According to the EFF manifesto, the EFF would replicate this state-run socialist society down all the way down to municipal level.
3. The cult of action for action's sake
Eco writes: "Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation."
This is one of the EFF's defining traits, a call to arms for the sake of nothing more than spectacle. In this way, the party can assume any position – even if contrary or hypocritical – on any issue, with no thought as to consistency of thought or principle. It is an entirely ahistorical attitude, ironic, for all the calls to history. Thus, the EFF can call for fresh elections when Cyril Ramaphosa is elected as president and, the very same week, act to remove a mayor in Nelson Mandela Bay. "Action" is the calling card for the EFF's contradiction and double speak and it marks its almost every endeavour.
4. Disagreement is treason
Eco writes: "The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge."
As set out elsewhere, the EFF's disciplinary code reads like something out of the Soviet Union. Discipline is absolute, and disagreement met with harsh and immediate punishment. In part, the 60% turnover rate in the EFF's national caucus speaks to this total intolerance for internal dissent, to a degree far more severe than in any other modern political party. But it is replicated externally too. Public disagreement or criticism of the party is turned on absolutely, as intolerable, and critics denigrated and disparaged, often in racial terms, and in the most vicious way.
5. Fear of difference
Eco writes: "The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition."
Another defining trait. The EFF is an inherently racist party, shaped and moulded after Malema himself, whose contempt for white South Africans in general and Indian South Africans in particular, is acute. "Whiteness" we are told is everywhere, infecting all institutions (most recently, news outlets like the SABC and eNCA). The "white", the enemy, the outsider – is "just a visitor" here, Malema says. They must "behave".
These two traits together – disagreement as treason and a fear of difference - make sense. They are the hallmarks of a total mentality, of absolutism. With Malema, as the custodian and gatekeeper of "black interests", the party becomes to believe not just that it is acting on their behalf, but that it understands "black identity" (a fictitious idea) better than black South Africans themselves. In this, its job is not just promote these archetypes but to impose them. Conversely, it knows the collective identity of white South Africans, the enemy, totally and completely. And it patrols the boundaries of identity, enforcing its fantasies and degenerating any opposition to them.
6. Appeal to social frustration
Eco writes: "One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups."
There is little need to explain this feature in any detail, it is the sine qua non of the EFF's electoral appeal, to the alienated, angry, socially and political disenfranchised, the poor and the marginalised, to rise up and complete the revolution. To blame are white South Africans and "white monopoly capital", which has infected even the ANC and continues to control and manipulate the economy. The EFF would have it, it alone is the true bearer of the liberation torch.
7. The obsession with a plot
Eco writes: "The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia."
Evidence for this is everywhere but perhaps Malema's July 2017 rally in KwaZulu-Natal, where he turned on Indian South Africans, is most instructive. Prior to that Malema has referred to "The Indian Question". He said then: "In the context of KwaZulu-Natal, where we have an 'Indian question' particularly, the Africans feel Indians are dominating life in every sphere." But, in July 2017, he would take it further still: "I've been going around here, in Durban here. Our people are crying tears, when they speak about how Indian fellows are treating them. How they treat them as subhuman. And the ANC has allowed that nonsense because the ANC is captured here in KwaZulu-Natal. All political parties in KwaZulu-Natal, they are captured. They might not be captured by an Indian Gupta family but they are in the pockets of other Indian families. It has to come to an end."
This obsession with a plot – whether it be "white monopoly capital", "whiteness" infecting news rooms or Indian entrepreneurship – dominates the EFF and Malema's rhetoric and thinking. They are controlled by other race groups, working against black South Africans, to undermine and subjugate them, and no more than your race determines whether you are a villain or a victim of these unseen but all powerful forces.
8. The enemy is both strong and weak
Eco writes: "By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak."
A classic EFF trait. The ANC is constantly presented as a juggernaut, a behemoth that controls all, kills its people, and whose former president, through a personal patronage network manipulates every element of the state, to the extent that the whole state is captured. At the same time, the ANC is weak. We are constantly told it is the EFF that is leading, that the ANC is merely a sheep, hypnotised by and awe of the EFF's political brilliance. In this way, as Eco says, there is a "continuous shifting of rhetorical focus" as the ANC switches between all-powerful spotlight and fragile candle flickering in the EFF's wind.
9. Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy
Eco writes: "For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle."
The EFF's is essentially a militant organisation, formed around the metaphor of an army, with a commander-in-chief and a war room. The revolution is constant. The battleground everywhere. Parliament is not a Socratic forum but a site of struggle, of physical disruption if necessary. No different from an H&M stores, which can ransacked for the sake of an argument with someone else on the other side of the world. The fight is everywhere, in everything, and always present. Argument, debate, discussion and disagreement are not acceptable alternatives, unless they are backed up by the threat of violence.
In this way few positions exist as ideas in and of themselves, they are primarily threats. Most often backed up by some or other physical consequence, should they not be adhered to. The EFF is not interested in winning debates but in ensuring its position emerges triumphant. In this way, it attempts to emasculate debate by, first and foremost, describing the consequences of any disagreement.
10. Contempt for the weak
Eco writes: "Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology."
Malema, like so many in the EFF is both a revolutionary cadre and simultaneously a member of the elite. He feigns concern to the poor but indulges the life of rich. He wears overalls in parliament but suits in private. He speaks to the poor at rallies but parties with millionaires on his own time. The EFF itself is subject to this contradiction: it wishes to be outside the state, to bring the state down, but it wishes too, to be photographed on the red carpet, to be celebrated on social media and to have profiles about its leading personalities to be written in high-end newspapers. It wishes the status quo to indulge it, just as it claims it wishes to destroy it.
But the contradiction extends further still. The EFF is an army, it would have us believe. Led by a commander. He has, however, fought in no war. He is an invention. The highest ranking general, who have ever earned a medal.
11. Everybody is educated to become a hero
Eco writes: "In Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death."
There is much to be said about the EFF's obsession with death, Malema's too, on a psychological level. It suffices to say that features prominently in the EFF's rhetoric. And it is a longstanding obsession, Malema's most infamous quote – that he would be willing to die for Jacob Zuma – speaks to this link between death and heroism and how integrated it is into Malema's internal universe. It is, of course, the language and thinking one might try to inculcate into soldiers, not politicians. It is a desire not for the modern world, and the battle of ideas, but for some ancient time, where blood and bloodshed defined human endeavour.
There is something to be said about education too. The EFF prides itself on the intellectual pedigree of its leaders, which it frames almost universally in terms of formal tertiary education qualifications, each one of which it launches as a spectacle. But for all that, true revolutionaries, as opposed to the EFF's pseudo brand, are text loyal, totally versed in the writings and philosophy of their respective ideological icons. The EFF, however, is not. Indeed, there is no universal revolutionary text to which it subscribes. As Eco says, it has "no special philosophy", just a self-serving and brutal pragmatism by which it appropriates any idea that serves its general purpose.
12. Machismo and weaponry
Eco writes: "Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality."
This is perhaps the least applicable of Eco's features. Ironically, the modern world – for which Malema has so much contempt – has made at least this sort of bigotry unacceptable for even the EFF. But of machismo there is no shortage. The grandstanding, the claims to bravery in the face of some all-consuming dark force, the feigned allusion to death and heroism and the way in which heroes of old, especially those that died in pursuit of some cause, are hyper-venerated, all of these speak to a rampant machismo, and the need to feign aggression and dominance. Malema's use of violence, his constant references to metaphors like "the barrel of a gun" permeate through his and the EFF language. Linked to this and the cult of heroism, the Guevara-inspired banner held at the EFF's inaugural meeting, and which read, "A revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate", resonates on this front today, as it did then.
There is much else besides, one could file under this trait. Deputy Leader Floyd Shivambu's assault of a journalist last week, is a kind of machismo. The Facebook post, by an EFF chairperson in Ekurhuleni, in which he stated, "we could kill all this [sic] white [sic] in two weeks", likewise brings together not just machismo and the cult of death but the contempt for pacifism or debate.
13. Selective populism
Eco writes: "There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People."
This goes the heart of the EFF's conception of itself as the voice of all black South Africans; indeed the idea that there is any such thing as an archetypal group that comprises all black South Africans, uniform in its thinking, desires, history and culture. Overseeing it all is the EFF, the sole and total custodian of black identity.
14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak
Eco writes: "All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning."
Malema is superb at harnessing simple ideas, turns of phrase, the mixing of languages, to deliver messages that resonate with the party's core constituency: the unemployed and working class, the media too. He uses social media powerfully to this end, generating typically binary ideas that trap debate in a false dichotomy from which it cannot then escape and, in turn, by which the public mind is then trapped. Malema and the EFF does not do ambiguity or subtlety, complexity or complication. As a result, the party's generally impoverishes rather than enriches South African debate.
Eco has the EFF almost down to a tee. It is true, his list is but an archetype itself. But it is a helpful guide. In turn, it is a pity the word "fascist" is so abused and misused, in every serious sense it is an insightful analytical mechanism through which one can better understand the EFF and its leader.
The party is by his concept a fascist institution and serious-minded political analysts should give some serious consideration to using this description when talking about the EFF.
History is replete with examples of the damage fascism has done. But Malema cares nothing for history. Neither does the EFF.
But for all Eco's characteristics and insights, as brilliant as they are, it would be a mistake not to acknowledge the fundamental emotional impulse that underpins Malema's political attitudes and behaviour: a deep and residing low self-esteem, which manifests in a racial urge for revenge and punishment, and a universe of insiders and outsiders.
To Malema's mind, he is the sole gatekeeper to that world and, if you are black South African, redemption can only be found via the EFF.
History is replete with examples of the damage fascism has done. But Malema cares nothing for history. Neither does the EFF. It, like so much else, is a means to an end. That end is totalitarian in nature. The only thing stopping its realisation is power, of which the EFF has none, at least in any meaningful sense. One can laugh off any one of those attributes described above as no more than coincidence but, collectively, they cannot be contested.
The EFF is a fascist party and Malema is a fascist. South Africans need to begin to reconcile themselves with that fact.
Gareth van Onselen is the Head of Politics and Governance at the South African Institute of Race Relations