by Martin Plaut, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies

A month ago the South African Parliament was brought to a halt. The Speaker had been unable to bring to an end a demonstration on the floor of the Chamber.. The august Victorian building, constructed in 1884, complete with a fine statue of the queen herself, had certainly never seen anything like it.

From the benches Members of Parliament belonging to the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) chanted “Pay back the money, Pay back the money!” The EFF were attempting to get a straight answer from President Jacob Zuma about when he would repay a portion of the Rand 246 million ($ 23 million) that had been spent upgrading his private residence.

The money was supposed to improve presidential security at his home in rural KwaZulu-Natal. An official, but independent, report had found that items such as a swimming pool, a shop for his wives and a cattle enclosure had nothing to do with presidential safety. President Zuma was ordered to repay a proportion of the total expenditure.

As is so frequently the case when President Zuma answers questions in Parliament, he gave a rambling and inconsequential reply. Frustrated by their inability to end President Jacob Zuma obfuscation, the EFF decided to halt the proceedings. No intervention from the Speaker could bring them to order. The live television feed of the proceedings was cut. Journalists were ordered out of the chamber, but refused to leave, tweeting about the chaos unfolding below them. Finally heavily armed riot police marched into Parliament, apparently about to forcibly remove the offending MPs.

Ranjeni Munusamy, one of South Africa’s best known commentators, described the scene.

“For a few minutes, South Africa was on the brink of something truly horrendous. Had the riot police tried to remove the EFF from the House, all hell would have broken loose. The EFF would have resisted, and the public order policing unit, not known for their restraint, would have used force. Here’s the big problem for whomever it was who called in the riot police to deal with a political battle and protect the president from having to answer difficult questions in Parliament: the Constitution of the Republic prohibits the arrest of any Member of Parliament for ‘anything they have said in, produced before or submitted to the Assembly or any of its committees’. Essentially, the police would have violated the Constitution had they gone ahead with the operation.”

In the end the riot squad were not sent into the chamber and parliamentary democracy limped on, to fight another day.

President Zuma’s African National Congress must rue the day that they expelled the EFF’s leader, Julius Malema from their party in February 2012. Once he had been among Jacob Zuma’s closest allies. As leader of the ANC’s Youth League Malema memorably declared in 2008 that he and his followers were prepared to die to protect the president. But the two men fell out and – after a series of insults and challenges to the President – the ANC finally took the rare step of throwing Malema and his associates out of the party.

Many expected the young Malema (he is still only 33) to fade into obscurity, as other ANC critics had done in the past. But he has an uncanny sense of the ANC’s weakest points and has exploited them with considerable skill.

In August 2012 the police opened fire on striking miners at Marikana, North-West of Johannesburg, killing 34 and wounding over seventy. Malema saw his chance. He did something no ANC leader had done and went to the area to address the miners and their families. Urging them to fight for economic justice, Malema declared: “You must never retreat, even in the face of death,” he told the gathering, not far from the hill on which so many had been shot. “Many people will die as we struggle for economic freedom,” he said.

In the May 2014 general election Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters stood on a plainly populist platform. He called for massive wage increases for all workers and the nationalisation of the mines and large sections of agriculture. The populist package may have been unworkable, but it won considerable support. Malema was rewarded with more than a million votes; some 6.35% of the electorate. His party now has 25 Members of Parliament, no mean feat for a party that was less than a year old.

From the first Malema has milked Parliament for all it is worth. He and his members arrived dressed in their trademark red overalls and hard hats, determined to flaunt their proletarian credentials. “We primarily represent the interests of the working class and the poor in South Africa,” said the party’s spokesman, Floyd Shivambu, “and we want to assure them that indeed Parliament is a space where they can find expression.”

It was a clever ploy and in the intervening months the EFF has managed to hog the political limelight, portraying the governing ANC as a party of the newly enriched elite, mired in corruption.

The ANC has found this an intensely painful experience. President Zuma’s party has easily shrugged off similar accusations from the official opposition – the Democratic Alliance – as the gripes of a white dominated party. They cannot do the same to Malema and the EFF.

Instead, the governing party has taken a new tack. In the chaos of the parliamentary confrontation the reaction of the general secretary of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, was easily overlooked. Speaking to a Johannesburg local radio station he accused Malema and the EFF of being “fascists”. Mantashe warned his listeners that the state had to be vigilant or it would be overthrown.

It would be easy to dismiss the accusation as a mere off the cuff remark of a politician under pressure, but this is not the case. The claim has been made in recent months with increasing frequency. Julius Malema is a “Hitler in the making,” Mantashe declared on the 16th of July. Malema, he said, was using the tactics Hitler had employed of making exaggerated claims that had a populist ring: “The Nazis didn’t start by killing Jews, they started by making promises,” Mantashe told journalists.

But what are the origins of the idea that Malema is a fascist? There are elements of the EFF’s leader’s behaviour that bears some comparison to those of the Nazi leader. Malema is the self-styled ‘Commander in chief’ of his party. He regularly engages in political stunts and his supporters all wear uniforms, even if these are no more than red berets and red T-shirts. But at this point the comparison runs out of steam. Other parties in South Africa do much the same, with the firmly liberal Democratic Alliance routinely dressing in blue for party events.

The origins of the accusation are to be found in the ANC’s own history and traditions and particularly in its unique alliance with the South African Communist Party. This relationship goes back to the 1950s. The Communist Party was banned by the white supremacist National Party government in 1950. The party briefly dissolved itself and its membership went into exile or went underground. Those who remained in South Africa linked up with the ANC to form the Congress Alliance, bringing in several other groups, including trade unions, to fight apartheid. In the 1980s the movement was transformed into the Tripartite Alliance, linking the ANC, the Communists and the largest trade union movement, COSATU*.

Being a member of the Communist Party has been no barrier to being a member of the ANC as well. After his death the Communists revealed that Nelson Mandela himself had been on their Central Committee, a fact the party had previously denied. Gwede Mantashe is not only the ANC’s most senior party official after Jacob Zuma, he is also a member of the Communist Party Politbureau.

While the ANC has provided the bulk of the Alliance’s membership, the Communists have helped provide its ideological rigour. Much of the policy work and ideology of the ANC can be traced back to the Communists, which is why their statements on Julius Malema are worth serious consideration.

For at least the past five years the South African Communist Party has been making no secret of its belief that Malema aligned himself with a faction within the ANC that had made their money via the government’s Black Economic Empowerment programme. These deals frequently required black businessmen to get deep into debt to buy stakes in previously white owned businesses. Some got into trouble, flailing around to replay their loans.

In May 2010, for example, it was pointed out that one of the best known of these deals, Mvelaphanda Resources (Mvela), created by Tokyo Sexwale, had got itself into terrible difficulties. “Nine years after its founding by Tokyo Sexwale, Mvela is arguably the most prominent BEE failure,” wrote Jim Jones, the former editor of South Africa’s best known financial papers, Business Day**. “It has been twisting and turning for well over a year to get off the hook of crippling debt and, indirectly, to help those of its BEE shareholders who have borrowed to finance their shareholdings.”

Highlighting this issue, the Communist Party attacked those who called for nationalisation, including Julius Malema***. The party declared that it had warned against the use of state finances to bail out the emergent new rich. It came out strongly against: “…diverting billions of rands of public funds to serve the interests of a narrow black (and white) capitalist stratum.”

Nor was it just a question of “bailing-out debt-ridden BEE capital,” according to the communists. The party alleged that members of the new black elite had approached union officials in the mining sector, asking for their support. The trade unionists were allegedly told: “…why don’t you support the nationalization of the mines? If government takes over the mines they will turn to us to run them.†” State nationalisation of the mines would relieve the nouveau riche of their crippling debts and allow them continue to enjoy their newly-found wealth.

This was all very annoying for the traditional left, which complained that their policies had been highjacked. In December 2009 the political report to a Communist Party Special Congress declared that the new elite had been attacking the role of the Communist Party within the ANC. The statement summarised the left’s critique of the Malema and his associates:

“…this anti-communism/anti-SACP tendency has been informed and influenced by ascendancy to state power and prospects of being part of (albeit a compradorial) emergent black sections of the capitalist class. In other words, whilst the anti-communism of the pre 1990 era was informed by a petty bourgeois ideological reaction to communism, the post-1994 anti-communism has been informed by the new emergent class interests accompanied by very real prospects of using state power or accumulated dependent BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) capital to capture our movement… Ironically, but not surprisingly, the bail out for black capital simultaneously becomes the bail out and strengthening of white domestic capital upon which the former is entirely dependent.”

In other words, the Communist Party accused Julius Malema of being seduced by the emerging black capitalist class. The Communist Party went further, accusing Malema of ‘proto-fascism,’ – the worst insult in the Communist lexicon.

“We do not use the term proto-fascist lightly, nor for the moment should we exaggerate it. However, there are worrying tell-tale characteristics that need to be nipped in the bud. They include the demagogic appeal to ordinary people’s baser instincts (male chauvinism, paramilitary solutions to social problems, and racialised identity politics).”

The report quoted the German Marxist, Walter Benjamin, as saying that while socialists politicised theatre, fascists did the reverse – turning politics into a noxious form of theatre.

“This, in turn, reinforces the nature of the relationship between “leaders” and their popular base – the latter become “spectators”, who clap and cheer in admiration at their patrons, and boo and jeer at rivals. The mass base is mobilized on the basis of being perpetual “spectator-victims” – not protagonists, not collective self-emancipators. Above all, however, it is the nature of the still rudimentary class axis, at play here, that should send out early danger signals.”

This analysis dates from 2009. Yet there are strong echoes of this perspective in the words of Khusela Sangoni, national media liaison officer for the ANC, when he debated with the EFF spokesman earlier this month.

The key question today is what the ANC does next. The party also finds its relationship with some of its union allies under threat. The metalworkers of Numsa are the largest union in the country and traditionally backed the ANC. But the union refused to campaign for the party in May’s general election, accusing the ANC of having sold out to capitalists. The ANC had “become dysfunctional and incapable of defending working-class interests,” the union declared.

The metalworkers are leading a group of breakaway unions who are considering whether to form a new, left wing movement to challenge the ANC directly. Numsa has announced it will hold a conference in March to launch a United Front, linking unions, community organisations and existing left-wing parties.

In a remarkably frank statement, Gwede Mantashe made plain his concerns. The ANC was “under siege” he declared. The ANC general secretary said that those who wanted to split the movement were acting in the interests of sinister “international forces opposed to our movement.”

The ANC’s response to these mounting challenges has been largely rhetorical, but the rhetoric is becoming increasingly alarmist and alarming. Party members have demonstrated outside parliament, chanting Malema’s name and calling for him to be shot. The demonstrations were not large, but the EFF said their chants reflect the real policies of Jacob Zuma’s party. “We are not shocked, we are not surprised – it’s consistent with the wishes of the ANC – that we should be shot,” said an EFF spokesman.

The political temperature in South Africa is rising. Politics could move away from genteel parliamentary debates and onto the streets and into the shanty-towns. It should not be forgotten that Jacob Zuma was head of the ANC’s intelligence arm in exile, Mbokodo, in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, which had a fearsome reputation. Those tactics could be dusted down and taken off the shelf, if the party felt its hold on power was really beginning to slip from its grasp.


 * See South African Labour Bulletin, Vol 11, no 5, 1986
** In December 2011 the London-listed investment firm Blackstar Group announced to acquire South Africa’s Mvelaphanda Group in a cash and share deal worth $225 million. Mvelaphanda had been selling off assets for two years. Reuters 8 December 2011.
*** African Communist, Issue 181, September 2010, page 74
† Ibid. page 75.