Julius Malema: It's Just a Jump to the Left, And Then a Step to the Right

By Richard Pithouse · 13 Nov 2013

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Picture: Julius Malema courtesy Gary van der Merwe/Wikimedia Commons.
Picture: Julius Malema courtesy Gary van der Merwe/Wikimedia Commons.

Being against [one form of] evil doesn't make you good.
- Ernest Hemingway, Islands in the Stream, 1952

Over the last ten years or so there has been an extraordinary degree of popular protest in South Africa. The seemingly incorrigible elitism of the higher reaches of our public sphere has meant that, particularly in the absence of sustained formal organisation, popular protest has seldom won the right to represent itself in this space. For years the media, NGOs, academy and political parties were able to substitute the presentation of their own assumptions, frequently inflected with crude stereotypes, for rational and democratic engagement. However now that the scale and tenacity of popular dissent is being more widely recognised there is an astonishing array of actors trying to capture it, or bits of it, including political parties, NGOs, activists of various sorts, minor political sects, entrepreneurs, tenderpreneurs and people with religious, ethnic and cultural projects.

Neither popular protest nor successful attempts to capture it automatically translate into progressive politics. Popular protest has often aligned itself with deeply reactionary forms of politics, frequently mediated through religion, ethnicity and hyper-masculinity. There are also examples of corrupt and authoritarian states that have been able to renew their legitimacy by making targeted concessions to popular protest. But there are also important examples of sustained popular protest producing progressive movements, enabling progressive forces to capture state power and achieving real social progress.

The Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have already entered the electoral fray and rumour suggests that the metal workers’ union (NUMSA) is likely to break from COSATU and make its own entry into electoral politics. None of these organisations have emerged from the community struggles that have developed over the last ten years. But all of them, including NUMSA if it does break from COSATU and form a new party, will want to capture popular struggles in communities as well as workplaces, and elsewhere.

Julius Malema’s charisma and notoriety, and the EFF’s connection to the struggle in Marikana, which has given the party some real political weight, has enabled the party to achieve significant media access and some political traction. It’s too early to say with any certainty how this will translate into electoral performance. But it’s not too early to draw some conclusions on the nature of the party’s project and its likely effect on our political landscape. However, it is necessary to keep in mind that all political organisations are in a state of constant flux and subject to all kinds of limits and influences. It’s not impossible that the EFF could be changed in significant ways by the popular struggles it is seeking to capture, by the alliances it makes, internal contestation, changes in our broader political landscape or the nature of electoral politics.

A number of commentators have argued that the EFF is essentially a fascist project. However its policy proposals, which are sometimes rather crude, are clearly situated in a left tradition that, while it is plainly authoritarian and deeply statist, is not fascist. No fascist organisation proposes support for immigrants and opposition to homophobia and patriarchy.

However the party’s policy proposals are clearly presented via a militaristic posture that is, along with being inherently authoritarian, also inherently masculinist. As Siphokazi Magadla has argued the dangers of this mode of politics should not be taken lightly. The political theatre that Malema performed at the court when his hate speech case was heard in April 2011 did evoke shades of Mussolini in many people’s minds and certainly created the impression that his conception of power is rooted more in force than consent.

Moreover, there is a massive gulf between the stated principles of the EFF and the behaviour of its key figures whose record is one of gross sexism, thuggish authoritarianism, demagogic rather than rational engagement, brazen corruption and a performance of social power rooted in consumerism. Unless evidence emerges of a genuine Damascene conversation, or unless the EFF attains a genuine capacity to discipline its leaders from below, it would be entirely naïve to assume that Julius Malema really is aspiring to be the next Thomas Sankara. We would, to say the least, be unwise not to recall how the ANC Youth League, the National Youth Development Agency and the public purse in Limpopo were plundered.

Malema did not step into the EFF from a sustained commitment to popular struggle. His politics is that of an authoritarian man at the helm of a party state and not that of a mobilised citizenry. He aspires to concentrate power in the state rather than to disperse it to the people. Under Malema the ANC Youth League looked to figures like Gaddafi, Mugabe and even Kim Jong II rather than, say, the popular movements that were transforming Latin America from below. Malema was, he said, willing to kill for Zuma. But when he had Zuma’s favour he never said a word against the brazen and brutal repression of grassroots activists under Zuma.

Malema only turned to popular struggle in search of a constituency when the ANC turned on him. In COSATU’s estimation he was on the party’s right wing before his relationship with Zuma broke down. There are those who disagree and argue that the ANC Youth League’s support for nationalisation under Malema means that he was really on the left all along. This is a facile reduction, not uncommon in certain kinds of crude and dogmatic leftism, of the political to a single economic question – the mode of ownership of the means of production. The fact is that nationalisation was a key plank in the original programme of the Nazi party. It has also been used by various appallingly authoritarian regimes that have presented themselves in the language of the left, including the North Korean monarchy supported “unapologetically” by the ANC Youth League under Malema.

Of course there are also many cases where nationalisation has played an important role in socialising economies. But nationalisation is not an inherently progressive project. In 1961 Frantz Fanon argued that “the nationalization of the economy” and “Africanization of offices” was a key demand of the most predatory factions of what he called the national bourgeoisie. Fanon was certainly not against nationalisation or deracialisation, but he was very clear that for predatory elites “nationalization does not mean placing the totality of the economy at the service of the nation…as an expression of new social relations…..To them, nationalization quite simply means the transfer into native hands of those unfair advantages, which are a legacy of the colonial period.”

Ato Sekyi-Otu, the most brilliant and careful reader yet of Fanon’s last work, The Wretched of the Earth, shows that Fanon goes on to argue that this kind of nationalism is “a profoundly anti-political ideology”. In Sekyi-Otu’s estimation what Fanon proposes is “the upsurge of richer modes of reasoning, judging and acting” than the “brutality of thought” that can emerge from an immediate response to colonial horror. For Sekyi-Otu a Fanonion politics is rooted, precisely, in ‘new social relations’ that can restore “dignity to all citizens …. and create a prospect that is human because conscious and sovereign persons dwell therein”. Malema’s politics is a world apart from this. He mobilises the language of Stalinism to approach the citizenry as ‘the masses’, as a kind of battering ram wielded by leaders. The fact that this mode of politics may offer a route into a certain kind of respect for some young men cast adrift from hope in a society grounded in contempt for their equal humanity does not make it progressive.

The escalating ferment in our politics is going to change all of the organisations that participate in it in ways that no one can predict. But while there’s no reason to doubt that there are people offering their support to the EFF in good faith the party, at the moment, would seem to be best characterised as a vehicle for one of the most authoritarian and predatory factions to have come out of the ANC to win back some power. The fact that it raises real questions around important issues like land, state repression, the power of capital over society, racism and enduring redoubts of white power does mean that it will no longer be possible to sweep these issues under the proverbial carpet. This is a good thing. But posing a counter authoritarianism to that of the ANC moves us away from the prospect of a democratic resolution of the crisis that we confront. And posing a person every bit as dubious as Zuma to Zuma moves us away from the prospect of attaining a politics of principle.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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Isaac Mpho Mogots
14 Nov

Ideological Inconsistencies

1) The author claims that EFF and Malema rely only on Gaddafi, Mugabe and the North Korean archetypes. He says they ignore Latin America's mass movements. This is misinterpretation. Malema's movement, even when he was still the ANCYL leader, modeled itself around the Venezuelan Chavistas. Hence their red berets, which bear a striking resemblance to Hugo Chavez's red beret.

Malema, as ANCYL leader, visited Zimbabwe and Venezuela. The author of the authoritative biography of Malema accompanied him on his trip to Venezuela t0 study their nationalization model.

Why does the author seek to downplay this angle?

2) To accuse the Julius malema movement of being a Fascist one in the mould of Musolini and also of mobilizing "masses" using Stalinism is rather a leap of faith. Stalin was a party apparachik through and through, who used the party and state repression to demobilize the masses. His fight with Trotsky was ultimately about Trotsky wanting the masses permanently agitated and involved, whilst Stalin was relying on Chekas and other state and party instruments of repression. At the end, Fascism and Stalinism fought out their differences in the battlefields of the second World war. Incidentally, Julius Malema seems to be the victim of Stalinist purges within the ANC-SACP alliance under Zuma. A victim differs from a primary proponent of Stalinism.

3) I do not agree with the author that Ato Sekyi-Atu is the best authority of Franz Fanon's wretched of the Earth. The first honor for that must go to Jean-Paul satre, the French philosopher who wrote the Foreword to the same Wretched of the Earth. And after him, I would easily confer the honor to University of Witwatersrand's Achille Mbembe. Fortunately, it is easy to settle this one: compare the three's writings on and reviews of the Wretched of the Earth.

4) The biggest lesson we should take away from Sankara is that a mass movement is required for thorough-going transformation. It is not so much that he rode to work by bike, wore simple shirts, earn a pittance, lived liked the poor. When the chips were down, the masses did not use their hoes and spades to chase the coup leaders who overthrew him away. The masses of Venezuela re-instated Chavez back to power after the coup of 2002. The Cuban masses saved the Cuban revolution from the Bay of Pigs invasion of US president JF Kennedy.

Beyond theorizing, what movement does Richard Pithouse recommend for such a role in SA? The weak WASP? SACP?

5) The only best chance there was for defeating Julius Malema's "fascist" tendencies was to have kept him within the ANC, because of the ANC's long-standing democratic party political traditions no other political formation in SA can boast about. So you cannot celebrate his expulsion from the ANC and express schandenfreude that his "fascist" tendencies are blossoming.

6) Other than the proposal of EFF and Malema, what precisely are the author's concrete suggestions to transform SA's economy in the next five years to benefit the poor. Ten simple, concrete alternatives please. maybe such alternative proposals will best illuminate his incoherent critique of Malema, which generally echoes the SA's white liberal critique of EFF and Julius Malema.

Respond to this comment

15 Nov


This is all a bit tiresome.

All Fanon scholars agree that Sartre's introduction to The Wretched of the Earth was based on a gross misunderstanding of the text that distorted readings of Fanon for years afterwards. This is basic, basic stuff.

In fact Fanon's biographer indicated that Fanon himself was deeply disappointed with Sartre's introduction. This is all very well established in the literature.

Also this article does not say that EFF is fascist. It clearly says that its programme is not fascist!

It does say that Malema's political theater evoked that of Mussolini at one point but never that the EFF is fascist.

And neither does it say that EFF is Stalinist. It just says that it has a Stalinist type concept of the masses as needing to follow a big man leader.

It is beyond me how anybody thinks that nationalism under Malema is in the interests of the poor. Is Eskom, SABC or SAA run in the interests of the poor? Of course not! And Malema's history of massive corruption means that he would do even worse.

The EFF programme is just a rehash of a typical Trotskyist 'transitional programme'. It proposes state capitalism. The problem with it is that is not radical enough.

16 Nov


Mbembe is horrified by Malema.

See http://sun025.sun.ac.za/portal/page/portal/Arts/Departments/sociology/documents/Achille%20Mbembe%20op-ed%20-%20Cape%20Times%20-%20August%202011.pdf

If I am not mistaken he actually called him the new Nonqawusa.

8 Mar

@Isaac Mpho

You really should read more carefully.

The author is clear that Malema supported North Korea while in the ANC YL. He does not say that this is the EFF's politics.

The level of debate in South Africa is puerile. When its not just about insult, people are attacked for things that they have never said.

This is a thoughtful article that deserves a thoughtful response.

Bass Man
15 Nov


Comment removed by moderator.

Respond to this comment

16 Nov

The Pitfalls of National Consciousness

I reread 'The Pitfalls of National Consciousness' from The Wretched of the Earth yesterday. It is very clear that Malema is exactly the sort of nationalist demagogue that Fanon is warning us about it. I don't see that there can be much doubt about this.

However, we do have to take seriously that EFF has successfully captured the political energies coming out of Marikana and not the Trots.

WASP (as DSM) was there before the strike but have been left behind by developments. I am told that when they had their big public meeting at which the big cheese from their mother body (the old Militant in the UK) spoke no workers were allowed to speak in case they said the wrong thing. If this is true its clear why they have failed at Marikana.

The DLF (linked to the SWP in the UK) rushed in after the strike and sent in all their big guns. But as Kwanele Sosibo reported in the M&G they flopped, totally. It seems that they were able to capture the Marikana Support Campaign but not the actual struggles in Marikana. Personally, I think that this is a good thing. The EFF are rightly critiqued for the misogyny of Malema and Shivambu but the rape scandals in the SWP in the UK are far worse than anything in the EFF. For the DLF to continue its links to the SWP after these rape scandals is atrocious.

So if Trotskyism has fallen flat on its face in Marikana and nationalism has done so well then it seems to me that while we must continue to critique Malema, his demagoguery and corruption we also need to realise that what we need is a democratic and principled radical nationalism - maybe something like a more democratic version of Huge Chavez.

Malema and co do come out of a terrible form of authoritarian and statist leftism (Kim Jong, Gadaffi, etc) but if the EFF is moving more towards Chavez type nationalism populism there may be grounds for optimism. And if NUMSA and Vavi join them we could be well on the way towards a credible transformatory project given the trade union history of democratic politics.

Gill Hart's new book is very, very good on the left and nationalism and offers a brilliant analysis of populism (although it is a pity that her account of the WSSD mobilisation is so wrong).

Respond to this comment

16 Nov

Malema Is at the Very Least an Ethnic Chauvinist

Don't forget that he has used racially derogatory language to describe Indian South Africans and that it has been reported that the EFF was in talks with the Mazibuye Africa Forum in Durban - a clearly fascistic anti-Indian organisation. And he also blamed his troubles with SARS on Indians.

It beggars belief that anyone on the left can even entertain the idea that Malema is anything other than a self-interested and dangerous demagogue.

Respond to this comment

Rory Verified user
16 Nov

Julius Malema

I think the proper place to start when considering the EFF is with Julius Malema himself. His character, from what I have seen of it through the media, does not strike me as one which is bent on serving anybody but himself. Thus for me I take any proposals put forward by the EFF, unless clearly and unambiguously self-serving in nature, as bait offered to hook in the votes of the constituency he is aiming to capture in 2014. It is as simple as that.

Respond to this comment

17 Nov


Yes, it has to be about Malema because the party is all about Malema. What will happen when he goes to jail for corruption though?

Maybe new people will come to the fore and it will become a different kind of organisation?

19 Nov

Thank You

I really enjoyed this article. You have put into words what many in the educated middle class when pressed would say they "just know". The problem is that those who support authoritarian Malema-like figures will never get to read this.

Respond to this comment

20 Nov


Malema has plenty of educated middle class supporters and there are plenty of working class and poor people who see right through him.