Recent events in South Africa (like the looming attempts to control the media), together with a comment by “Maria” on one of my previous posts, have set me wondering if we are seeing the beginnings of what Arundhati Roy, Indian social activist and novelist, called “creeping fascism”? Referring (in 2003) to what was happening under George W Bush in America, she wrote:

“Each time you defend the right of an institution, any institution (including the Supreme Court) to exercise unfettered, unaccountable power that must never be challenged, you move toward fascism.”

As Henry Giroux remarks in Against the New Authoritarianism, far from implying a “crude parallel” between Bush’s America and Nazi Germany, she was talking about the extremism on the part of the Republicans under Bush Jr. Roy was not the only one to have noted the phenomenon — in the same year Senator Robert Byrd, similarly alluding to the extremism on the part of the Bush administration, compared its use of the media to the propagandistic use of the latter by Hitler and his ilk.

What was it that motivated these people to notice similarities between Bush’s regime and that of Hitler, which was rightly known as German “fascism”? Three clues have already been provided; propagandistic use of the media, extremism and authoritarianism. (Do we notice any of these here?) Giroux’s book is a penetrating exploration of all the symptoms of such authoritarianism, including its “proto-fascist” practices, on the part of the Bush government. (One hopes that the election of Barack Obama has put an abrupt stop to such developments in America, but that’s another matter.)

What I would like to focus on here, is the extent to which Giroux’s and others’ observations about incipient (or full-blown) fascism assist one in decoding the present political developments in South Africa. Are there signs, here, of such proto-fascism?

At first sight the question seems ludicrous — did the present government not emerge victorious as governing party in 1994, after waging a “war of liberation” against just such a fascist state, namely the South African apartheid regime? If this is the case, and given our progressive democratic constitution, it just cannot be true that signs of “creeping fascism” are noticeable, yet again … or can it?

It all depends on what fascism is, as anyone with a mind for conceptual distinctions in political philosophy will tell you. But — and it’s a big BUT — as soon as one consults the literature on fascism, you discover that it is not at all a simple thing to define. On the contrary — as historian Kevin Passmore points out in his book on fascism (Oxford University Press), it is thoroughly contradictory, as history has shown.

Having sifted through all the different definitions of fascism (all of them issuing from a study of the historical examples of fascism in countries like Germany, Italy, Romania and Japan) — the Marxist, the Weberian, the one provided by theorists of totalitarianism — and after considering all of its contradictory aspects, Passmore arrives at the following multi-faceted description of fascism:

“Fascism is a set of ideologies and practices that seeks to place the nation, defined in exclusive biological, cultural, and/or historical terms, above all other sources of loyalty, and to create a mobilised national community. Fascist nationalism is reactionary in that it entails implacable hostility to socialism and feminism, for they are seen as prioritising class or gender rather than the nation. This is why fascism is a movement of the extreme right. Fascism is also a movement of the radical right because the defeat of socialism and feminism and the creation of the mobilised nation are held to depend upon the advent to power of a new elite acting in the name of the people, headed by a charismatic leader, and embodied in a mass, militarised party. Fascists are pushed towards conservatism by common hatred of socialism and feminism, but are prepared to override conservative interests — family, property, religion, the universities, the civil service — where the interests of the nation are considered to require it. Fascist radicalism also derives from a desire to assuage discontent by accepting specific demands of the labour and women’s movements, so long as these demands accord with the national priority. Fascists seek to ensure the harmonisation of workers’ and women’s interests with those of the nation by mobilising them within special sections of the party and/or within a corporate system. Access to these organisations and to the benefits they confer upon members depends on the individual’s national, political, and/or racial characteristics. All aspects of fascist policy are suffused with ultranationalism.”

Is this characterisation of fascism illuminating regarding our own situation in South Africa? I believe that it is, in affirmative terms, notwithstanding the fact that I also believe that the ANC probably did not move in the direction of proto-fascism intentionally, and was a democratic, if not socialist, organisation when it came into power in 1994.

Why do I say this? Think of the following observations in relation to Passmore’s description of fascism. Nationalism, or ultranationalism, is at the heart of fascism, and whatever other features may appear to be linked with it at different historical times — sometimes a greater receptivity towards capitalism than at other times, sometimes a greater willingness to accommodate conservatives (like aristocratic landowners) than on other occasions — these are all yoked together under the banner of nationalism. Is the ANC a nationalist organisation? Of course it is, and as in earlier times with similar nationalist movements, its brand of nationalism exceeds the boundaries of the South African nation to embrace other Africans.

Mbeki’s “African renaissance” is one manifestation of this. Another expression of the same thing — this time in conjunction with what Passmore says about “benefits” being conferred upon individuals, depending on their “national, political, and/or racial characteristics” — is the fact that, as I have learnt from colleagues at South African universities on several occasions regarding appointments of staff at these institutions, citizens of other African countries are sometimes appointed to vacant posts, rather than (white) South Africans.

Next, consider Passmore’s statement concerning the ” … creation of the mobilised nation”, which is “held to depend upon the advent to power of a new elite acting in the name of the people, headed by a charismatic leader, and embodied in a mass, militarised party”. Although our Constitution is undeniably democratic, it is not at all difficult to point to instances of “elite rule” in present-day South Africa, which is not separable from elite-enrichment either — money imparts tremendous economic, and with this, political power (need I refresh anyone’s memory about the recent ArcelorMittal BBBEE deal and its politically connected beneficiaries?).

The charismatic leader stipulation may be debatable, but for all intents and purposes, Jacob Zuma is perceived by many to be such. The ANC is without doubt a “mass party”, although it is arguably not “militarised”, unless one sees the militancy of individuals within its ranks as a metaphor for militarisation. As for the place of socialists and women within the party, there are many historical examples of fascists making concessions to these for the sake of the nationalist ideal, on the strict understanding that such nationalism is oligarchically defined and controlled (that is, by a select group of people).

However, the sign which is by far the most indicative of proto-fascist tendencies in the ruling party, is the current consideration, by Parliament, of the Protection of Information Bill, as well as the establishment of a media tribunal of sorts. In light of the preceding (brief) discussion of the hallmarks of fascism, it is no accident that several people have characterised these proposals as reminiscent of the apartheid state, which, in case anyone has forgotten, was a racist form of fascism.

These proposed pieces of legislation are also a clear attempt at centralising and consolidating power even further than it already has been, which brings us back to Arundhati Roy’s remark with which I started this post, where she cautions against defending “the right of an institution, any institution … to exercise unfettered, unaccountable power that must never be challenged”. Recently I have come across several attempts on the part of individuals defending the justifiability of the newly proposed bill and the media tribunal — do these resort under the class of defence that Roy refers to?

I do not want to be alarmist, and I don’t believe that South Africa is there yet (there are many people in the ANC who can hardly be considered to be on the right of the political spectrum), but unless one is vigilant in the face of signs of “creeping fascism” anywhere in the world — even in the US, commonly thought of as the greatest democracy in the world — it may develop unnoticed, until one day one finds all one’s hard-fought civil liberties to have imperceptibly vanished in the encroaching fog of fascist practices. That must not happen. Those of us who opposed apartheid, especially, owe it to the people of this country to draw attention to symptoms of such a suffocating state of affairs when they appear.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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