Tuesday, April 5, 2016

What kind of revolution does Julius Malema intend for South Africa?

There is something incongruous, if not contradictory, about Julius Malema holding up on TV a copy of South Africa’s constitution and swearing allegiance to it.

Mr Malema was expelled from the African National Congress for advocating rebellion. His Damascene conversion appears to be due to SA’s constitutional court judgment on Nkandla, praised on all sides for its ringing endorsement of democracy and the rule of law. 

But the revolutionary Mr Malema wants to nationalise mines and banks, although it is government policy not to. He threatens to take back the land without compensation. He speaks of eliminating ‘white supremacy’ in language that hints at violence: he maintains always he is speaking metaphorically. In the ANC, he proposed the overthrow of the legitimate government of Botswana, a friendly neighbour. That was perhaps the last straw.

Mr Malema formed his own party, the Marxist-Leninist Economic Freedom Fighters. There, he is unchallenged Commander-in-Chief and has made the EFF a thorn in the ANC's side.

It serves the ANC right: the party has only itself to blame for Julius Malema. He is the heir to its own promise of revolution - except the ANC’s revolution was meant rhetorically, especially after real revolutions saw the implosion of the state in Libya, Egypt and Syria. What has counted for the ANC since 1994 is that SA earns the best living it can in a capitalist world and ANC leaders and loyalists live very well in the mixed economy they preside over.

Cut off now from such benefits, having little to lose and much to gain, Mr Malema gleefully rocks the overloaded ANC boat. But after his conversion to constitutionalism, it is impossible to see how his Marxist-Leninism would work. And if it would not work, what other kind of revolution he would intend - or, horror of horrors, unleash on SA’s fragile democracy.

Many are suspicious Mr Malema is the champion of people whose lives he visibly does not share. In everyday language, they cannot understand how he can be a ‘communist' and an obvious capitalist at the same time. People are not lost for words. They explain in their own way how he contrives to speak for the poorest of the poor when his personal preferences are plainly the riches of the rich. Mr Malema is a hypocrite, a populist, a demagogue - are three of the more polite ways his detractors put it.

That still leaves a political explanation outstanding. Can Karl Marx go hand in hand with what some openly call Mr Malema's fascism? There seems to be another contradiction there.

Marxism springs from the highest ideals of humanity - the community of all, internationalism and peace. Fascism is not an ideology in any sense. Fascism is a politics of coercion which, if it entails anything besides verbal and physical violence, promotes extreme nationalism or nativism shading into racism, all being embodied in a messianic leader ready to be martyred for the sake of 'the people'.

However, these theoretical differences have always had a way of vanishing in practice. In Europe a century ago, communism and fascism were implacable enemies: their street brawls in Germany after World War I finally ended in the World War II fight to the death between Comrade Stalin's USSR and Herr Hitler's Third Reich.

But in both cases, the revolutionary party-state had extinguished civil liberties much earlier. The difference in reality was only between a dictatorship of the proletariat and a dictatorship of the German volk.

Outside Europe, communism got a new lease of life by teaming up with new and growing national feelings. In China in the early 1920s and in the long war against Japan, communists and nationalists fought on the same side. Later the two worked together to end French rule in Indo-China and to replace the corrupt regime in Cuba. In SA the story has been similar. Nativism-nationalism fought to free the land from colonial rule; communism fought to free the people from capitalism. Both marked out the imperial west, and its one-sided democratic values, as the permanent enemy and threat.

This is the complex inheritance of Julius Malema: African and European; white and black; national and universal. Whichever descriptions you use - imperialism, Marxism, democratic centralism, fascism - all are driven by a crusading zeal to dominate. What that means for SA, we must decide. Mr Malema cannot tell us when he cannot say what he means himself.