On how notions of pan-Africanist identity, post-apartheid liberation ideology and demographics are coalescing to give rise to African fascist nationalism
Across Africa we’ve witnessed the worst of political permutations as she vaunted herself out from under colonial exploitation. In many instances pseudo-democracy was achieved as a facade for a new black capitalist elite that mobilised the state apparatus to access and amass national wealth as personal fortunes for elites. These countries remained largely undeveloped and their people became the liberated poor. The rest is history. South Africa was the exception in many ways. The miracle advent of South African democracy surprised even the most hopeful idealists as white and black seemed to put the past behind them and bask in the afterglow of the first democratic vote. It is said that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. Nowhere had that been more true than in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela became our collective liberator. But that was the 1990s and we were naive.
Since the romantic Mandela-Mbeki decade, pragmatism and realpolitik has set in. South Africa is a country fraught with problems. Our political system is one where loyalisms and ideological fortresses propel incompetence to positions of power. Our economic system is one where rent seeking has followed from a hyper-consolidated consumerist club of glass towers. The bridge which we built to connect these two worlds is now known as Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment, except it was not very broad, and although it was black it succeeded in simply turning deployed cadres into the invested compromised core. The result of the prolonged inefficiency in both spheres has been that instead of a trickle down effect from economic growth through rapid expansion, there has been a sprinkle down attempt at widespread distribution through the rapid expansion of social grants. The Mbeki-Zuma decade of decline has not so much harmed the democratic and social project as halted it and, by so doing, resurfaced the old structures of injustice and resentment that have marked this land since early colonialism.
Simply put, apartheid’s disenfranchised majority has been replaced by democracy’s economically and materially alienated underclass. They also happen to be young, uneducated and angry.
Into this potent mix steps a brutal and charismatic African unapologetically seeking power and pleasure. “Juju” is more than a nickname for Julius Sello Malema. It is the alter ego of a political generation of Africans who hold a collective set of expectations and disappointments. The Economic Freedom Fighters is the mechanism through which the third factor in the three-part recipe for mass mobilisation lies – a collective narrative of why things are so, complete with heroes, villains and a climatic endgame. Of course, real life does not work that way and nations do not develop on the basis of mere imagery and drama. Instead, they rise out of the nexus of productivity, innovation and contextual necessity. That said, political movements have been known to crescendo on mere promises.
In this view, the scene is set for the rise of a new form of fascist nationalism, with a uniquely African flavour and particular South African focius.
What do you get when a large cohort of a population is young, uneducated, urbanised and politically engaged? You get #FeesMustFall. When your political culture turns into puppeteering to the tune of populist ultimatums? Youth get #BlackFirstLandFirst. When centuries of oppression and suppression have inculcated a culture of subservience and a deep loss of identity, other than in vague cultural habits and forceful liberation movement collectivism?
You end up with a marching militancy which sacrifices individual freedoms for group demands; you end up with blind obedience and irrational scapegoating to construct the singular official narrative and you end up with a sense of superiority rooted in insubordination, which hopes in a future that is perceived to be possible only at the expense of a real or perceived aggressor. You get a battle of rocks and bullets on university campuses instead of a battle of ideas. Eventually, you end up with an Africanised Nazi Germany.
The challenge then for the ANC, and for that matter for all democratic South Africans, is to rise above the “us versus them” world view and the “me and my own” individualism that has brought us to this point. To remember the transcendent selflessness that recognised apartheid for what is was – abusive and exploitative and morally bankrupt, and today to see through the normality of the systems and structures that still lock us in – to again see that they too are abusive and exploitive and morally bankrupt. While the task is mammoth, South Africa must re-imagine the good society envisioned in our Constitution and work vigorously to create it, lest we discover the worst in ourselves before committing to nurturing the best of what we can become.