Not to be dismissed

2013-08-22 00:00

HISTORICAL parallels make great headlines and stimulate interesting debate. Julius Malema, for example, was recently described as South Africa’s Adolf Hitler by Mamphela Ramphele.

Whether this was off-the-cuff or carefully considered, it has some justification. Economic distress and a sense of bitterness among workers after cataclysmic, socially destructive events (a world war and apartheid, respectively), and resort to the politics of racial struggle are common to both.

But here the similarities end. Hitler had no scruples about employing political violence and had supporters in all sections of German society such as the army and middle class. At present, it is hard to see Malema attracting much support outside the ranks of unemployed and underemployed youth, although that sector, if mobilised, is large enough to be highly significant.

However, there is another reason why the comparisons raised by Ramphele are important. Before Hitler and the Italian fascist Benito Mussolini attained power, thousands mocked the jumped-up corporal and the buffoonish, womanising newspaper editor. But by the end of their relatively short period of political dominance, millions had died. Malema is the butt of contemptuous jokes, but next year’s elections may require a rethink.

The launch of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFFs) raises questions about the nature of populism. Worldwide, mainstream parties practise the politics of the possible. Whatever their promises, once in government, they discover the limitations of power. Conversely, populist parties engage in the politics of the apparently impossible. So when Malema says his EFFs will nationalise mines and expropriate land without compensation, protect industry massively, and turn the state into a construction company (it will even enter the cement business), it would be wise to take him seriously.

One of the dangers of populist politics is that it leans heavily on rhetorical illusions. Mussolini’s speeches consisted of short, angry sentences punctuated by long, dramatic pauses. Much of the content ridiculed and denigrated perceived enemies. In print, the speeches are absolute nonsense, the ravings of an apparent madman, but the cumulative, real-time effect was to incite a crowd into a state of political ferocity and irrationality.

Malema is still a novice, but the tone of his delivery and sentiments have considerable potential. He admits to using revolutionary language of agitation , and he has been at it for some while: remember his call to “kill for Zuma”, a sentiment accepted with stunning cynicism by the ANC. More recently, referring to Guptagate, he berated Jacob Zuma for selling the country for a plate of curry.

Malema, a skilled politician, knows that memorable quotations are worth their weight in political gold, but he is also capable of profound thought: “You can arrest me,” he said in July 2011, “but you cannot arrest my ideas.” He has a point. And some of the analysis of the EFFs is sound: political liberation has meant little to the poverty-stricken majority and South Africans do not receive maximum benefit from their resources. The country is in the grip of international economic bondage called globalisation. It is the EFFs’ solutions that are questionable, advanced under the famous Leninist rubric: “What is to be done?”

Ramphele would have been closer to the mark had she described Malema as our first Latin-American-style political leader, the South African version of Hugo Chavez whose socialist populism in Venezuela involved redistributive economic policies and nationalisation of the petroleum industry. Malema has a similar constituency and cause, harnessing resentment about betrayal and neglect, and deprivation of rights, and a meaningful voice; while denouncing the perceived culprits in the speeches of a demagogue.

This is perfectly rational politics, but also dangerous. Its ideological ambivalence means that it boils down to simplicities such as the “will of the people”. From here it is a short step towards the delegimitisation of democratic institutions such as the Constitution and the rule of law, and their substitution by symbols of unaccountable power; in other words, conditions ripe for fascism.

Populism is particularly attractive to politicians whose primary aim is power, rather than service. They position themselves as tribunes of the people, acting expediently and abandoning principle or conviction. Such vanguardism is the very reverse of responsible leadership. It taps into political egotism and flamboyance; appealing for example to those who like to call themselves commander-in-chief, wear distinctive headgear and organise political parties on the basis of national command structures. Malema describes his EFFs as revolutionary foot soldiers who aim for global economic liberation. We have been warned.

• letters@witness.co.za

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