Does South Africa Have a Fascism Problem?
An ascendant populist movement is shining a light on government corruption. In response, the ruling ANC is resorting to slurs to remind voters that it is the party of the people.
On August 21, the South African Parliament dissolved into shambles. From the benches, members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a recently formed opposition party, chanted, "Pay back the money! Pay back the money!" The EFF, which has branded itself as a populist alternative to the ruling African National Congress (ANC), was attempting to get a straight answer from President Jacob Zuma, leader of the ANC, about when he would repay a portion of the 246 million rand ($23 million) that had been spent upgrading his private residence. The money was supposed to improve security at his home in rural KwaZulu-Natal. Yet an independent report had found that public expenditures were used to build a swimming pool, a cattle enclosure, and an amphitheater.
As the lawmakers continued to chant, halting the parliamentary proceedings, the live television feed of the event was cut and journalists were ordered out of the chamber. Security was eventually called to remove the members of the EFF. In the end, though, force was not sent into the chamber and parliamentary democracy limped on.
In the wake of the confrontation, the general secretary of the ANC made a bold claim: Gwede Mantashe, speaking to a Johannesburg radio station, accused the ascendant EFF and its leader, Julius Malema, of being "fascists." Mantashe warned his listeners that the state had to be vigilant or that it would be in danger of being overthrown.
Forged in the fires of the struggle against apartheid, the ANC aligned those who opposed the vile, racist regime. Blacks, whites, Indians, and "coloreds" — a label in South Africa for individuals of mixed ethnic heritage — came together to face an apartheid enemy the ANC labeled "fascist." Today, while the ANC remains entrenched in power, its claim to being the party of the people is increasingly questionable. Many senior ANC leaders are mired in allegations of corruption, and the party has been accused, by the EFF and others, of showing disregard for the nation’s poor.
In response, the ANC is resorting to fearmongering, as opposed to genuine policy reform. A key goal of this reaction is to contain the EFF. It’s not so much that the new party represents a real threat to the ANC’s immediate political power. (The ANC retains a significant majority in parliament.) Rather, for the first time, the long-time ruling party can feel a chink in its armor — and a road map to the unraveling of its core constituencies.
The leader of the EFF, Julius Malema, was once a dependable member of the ANC. He led the party’s youth wing until differences with Zuma resulted in his expulsion in February 2012.
At first it appeared that Malema would soon be forgotten, the fate of many who have been expelled by or split from the ANC. Yet nearly a year and a half after his discharge, Malema announced the establishment of a new opposition party. Drawing support from youth, who have been frustrated by the ANC’s leadership, and some significant radical academics, the EFF officially launched in October 2013.
The party’s call for "economic freedom" has resonated. During apartheid, the white minority controlled most of the country’s money and resources. Despite some modest attempts at economic redistribution under ANC stewardship, most wealth still lies in white hands. South Africa remains among the most unequal societies in the world. Though a narrow black elite has emerged around the ANC, buttressed by a wider black middle class, many South Africans still remain as poor as they were before Nelson Mandela’s presidency.
In general elections this May, Malema stood on a plainly populist platform. He called for massive wage increases for all workers and the nationalization of South Africa’s lucrative mines as well as large sections of agriculture. The promises may have been unworkable, but they drew considerable support. EFF candidates won more than 1 million votes, some 6.35 percent of the electorate. Malema’s party now has 25 members of parliament.
Malema has cleverly exploited the frustrations of the impoverished electorate. Dressed in their trademark red overalls, topped with red berets or hard hats, EFF members took their seats at the opening of the new parliament on May 21. "We primarily represent the interests of the working class and the poor in South Africa," the party’s spokesman, Floyd Shivambu, told journalists as they arrived, "and we want to assure them that indeed Parliament is a space where they can find expression."
Grappling with the popularity of the new movement has caused the long-ruling ANC real difficulties. The party has proposed some reforms to farming and mining to increase black participation, but it is cautious about rocking the country’s delicate economy, which is already declining on metrics of global competitiveness. As a result, instead of pushing for change, the party has turned to alarmist political rhetoric to shore up support.
On July 16, Mantashe declared that Malema is a "Hitler in the making." Malema, he said, uses the tactics Germany’s leader employed, including making exaggerated claims with a populist ring. "The Nazis didn’t start by killing Jews, they started by making promises," Mantashe told journalists.
From Moscow to Washington, politicians the world over have long referenced the Führer as a way to denigrate and delegitimize opponents. But for South Africans, the label carries particular weight. During the fight against apartheid, the ANC routinely referred to the governing National Party as fascist. In 1983, ANC president Oliver Tambo declared, "The nature of the conflict in South Africa is one of a struggle between the forces of fascist oppression and racist exploitation … on the one hand, and the forces of national liberation, and social and cultural emancipation, led by the ANC on the other hand."
Today, the ANC leadership is attempting to co-opt the language of a freedom struggle as a means of convincing its own members, and the wider public, that the EFF and Malema are not to be trusted.
The ANC’s tactics against the EFF reflect a wider concern, as the party finds its relationship with some of its key allies under threat. In the May elections, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, the largest union in the country and a traditional supporter of the ANC, refused to campaign for the party. Accusing the ANC of selling out to capitalists, the union declared in a press release that the ANC had "become dysfunctional and incapable of defending working-class interest[s]." While the metalworkers are themselves skeptical of the EFF, the union and Malema share a similar ideological critique of the ruling party. EFF’s popularity may signal a broader discontent among one of the ANC’s main bases.
The ANC’s tactics have resonated for some. On August 27, in response to the EFF’s actions in parliament earlier in the month, some 200 party members demonstrated outside the institution. They sang songs associated with South Africa’s anti-apartheid fight and, disturbingly, called for Malema to be shot.
In a country that earned its democracy after decades of violent politics, these new, more hostile, partisan theatrics represent a disturbing regression. But already thinking ahead to the next important elections in 2016, the ANC and its supporters are relying on such rhetoric and actions to stem the rise of popular opposition.
"We are here to defend democracy and this Parliament," one protester told the press in August. "We can’t, when we have struggled so much, allow hooligans and criminals like Malema and his EFF to undermine our party."