The Turn of the Fascist

By Jane Duncan · 18 Aug 2011

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Jacob Zuma’s rise to power has unleashed a torrent of rash, boorish, misogynistic and inciteful speech from politicians and commentators. In this regard, the utterances of ANC Youth League’s Julius Malema and ex-columnist Eric Miyeni come to mind. Why has public discourse plumbed to such depths of late? How serious is the problem and what can be done about it?

In 2009, the South African Communist Party (SACP) warned against the emergence of what it described as a proto-fascist tendency in the ruling alliance, where elements were expressing views that, if left unchecked, could mature into fascism. Clearly, the party was referring to the Youth League under Malema’s leadership. 

The SACP argued that while it lacked a coherent ideological outlook, this political tendency is driven by sections of the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) elite who are desperate to capture parts of the state to bail out BEE capital in the wake of the recession. 

According to the SACP, this BEE tendency has been developing an axis of influence between themselves and marginalised, alienated and unemployed youths who are open to populist mobilisation. 

The proto-fascist elements include an appeal to baser instincts such as male chauvinism, paramilitary solutions to social problems, racialised identity politics, and the turning of politics into ‘spectacle’ where followers become spectators of their leaders’ antics, rather than agents of emancipation.

Are the SACP's warnings an overreaction? Given the world history of fascism in the twentieth century, the term must not be debased by being used too lightly. 

After 1945, a global consensus emerged that fascist movements had a unique potential for militarism, racism and barbarism, and that never again should such movements be allowed to grow unchallenged. So, it is important to understand the conditions in which authoritarian nationalist movements emerge and flourish. If traces of fascism are detected, then their significance must be understood and the tendencies checked. 

Fascism is a form of ultra-nationalism, which opposes the degeneration of society and seeks to renew a nation’s political culture through a return to ‘traditional values’, imposed from above ostensibly for the greater good. Fascists reject legal and rational forms of politics in favour of charismatic politics. In mature fascist states, a small elite own and control the country’s wealth, and by extension, the government, through corporatist arrangements where business and the state are fused to achieve national objectives.

The fascism of the 1930’s, when this political tendency matured, was more than just a set of ideas; it was a solution to a specific set of historical problem. The recessionary crisis of capitalism in the 1920’s had destabilised European society and rulers could no longer afford to offer the reforms needed to rule by consent. 

The crisis led to a wave of class struggle, which gave rise to strong working class organisations, and the ruling class became desperate to smash their power. According to Leon Trotsky, “At the moment that the ‘normal’ police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium - the turn of the fascist regime arrives.”

But the ruling class’ social base was too puny to contain the might of organised workers; hence they sought alliances with three social groups that had been decimated by the recession. These were the shop owners and other petty bourgeois elements whose small businesses had collapsed en masse, the higher salaried individuals in the professional classes whose salaries had been eroded by inflation, and the poorest sections of society which had fallen out of the economic mainstream and whose interests were therefore not represented by the organised working class. These groups formed the social base of fascist movements.

In order to appeal to these disparate groups, fascists performed a sleigh of hand by fusing opposing ideologies. They used anti-socialist rhetoric to distinguish themselves from the organised working class and to appeal to the petty bourgeoisie, and anti-capitalist rhetoric to appeal to the underclass. 

When fascists captured the state, they intervened in all areas of life, contained the power of large industrial and financial complexes and created conditions for small businesses aligned to the fascists to thrive. They allayed the petty bourgeoisie’s concerns about socialist transformation, while attempting to deliver on electoral promises of full employment and national independence. This was done to ensure a controlled inclusion of the masses into the political system, in return for their acquiescence to fascist rule.

Fascist states usually exhibit common features, including the mobilisation of nationalist symbols and sentiments under a single charismatic leader, control of the judiciary and the media and the censorship of intellectuals, disdain for human rights, sexism and chauvinism, the promoting of individuals who are considered to be superior and the scapegoating of ‘others’ (like immigrants or gays), intensification of national security and ‘law and order’ concerns, and cronyism and corruption. 

What distinguishes a classical fascist regime from a Bonapartist regime, which relies only on the repressive apparatuses of the state for its survival, is that the former is more intractable as it sinks its roots deeply into society. 

How comparable are the conditions that gave rise to mature fascism in the 1930’s and current conjuncture? In South Africa, it is not coincidental that inflammatory speech intensified with the onset of the global recession in 2008. In the 1930’s the social groups that were most affected by the worsening climate, and their fascist proxies, used such speech as a call to arms.

The Youth League also makes use of well-established fascist techniques to shift populist movements to the right, such as demagoguery, scapegoating and conspiracism, and have shown hostility towards the communists and organised workers in the alliance. Pressures on media freedom and judicial independence are also apparent, and national security concerns are intensifying.

The Youth League has a charismatic leader in the form of Julius Malema. The League also uses left wing and right wing rhetoric to mobilise a similar conflagration of interests to the fascists in the 1930’s, which explains why they can shift seamlessly from calls for ‘economic liberation in our lifetime’ to outright misogyny against women. 

In the same way that the petty bourgeoisie used the fascists to secure their interests against those of organised workers and big capital, there is also evidence emerging that BEE elements are using the Youth League in the same way. The payments to Malema in return for political influence, as revealed by the City Press newspaper, have parallels with fascist economics. 

However, the petty bourgeois element that existed in the 1930’s does not exist to the same extent today, which makes the emergence of a mature fascist movement less likely. But South Africa does have a large and disaffected underclass.

On the upside, South Africa has strong democratic institutions. Be that as it may, when economies thrive, the most characteristic face of politics is liberal, but in recessionary times, fascist and warlike politics tend to dominate.  

Furthermore, democracy is not the natural state of politics under capitalism. Ruling parties globally will opt for democracy only to the extent that reforms are possible, and the economic crisis has made them less possible. Furthermore, the rise of China as a global superpower makes the withering away of democracy globally more likely.

In terms of severity, the recent economic crisis has been likened to the 1920’s depression. The current crisis is far from over, and the world and South Africa are teetering on the brink of double-dip recession. The newly emerged middle class risks being put out of business in this economic climate.

Echoing the conduct of the petty bourgeoisie of the 1930’s, their response is to attempt to capture the state for their own interests, which is why the struggle for state tenders is intensifying. 

On the other side of the class divide, the struggles of the organised working class in South Africa are intensifying, which will also threaten the tenderpreneurs.

Worryingly, many features of fascist politics are already apparent in some form in South Africa’s politics. Elements of mature fascism are especially apparent in Mpumalanga province, where the state and business have become intertwined and death squads assassinate corruption whistleblowers. It is not coincidental that assassinated whistleblowers have been either trade unionists or communists: historically, the avowed enemies of fascists.

In short, conditions do exist for the maturation of fascist politics. If this shift to the right enjoys popular support, as fascist movements tend to do in their early stages, then South Africa’s democratic institutions may not be robust enough to withstand this shift. 

This is why the political organisation of the unemployed is so crucial to the future of South Africa. As Mazibuko Jara has pointed out, the current consensus in South Africa remains because the unemployed do not have an independent organised voice. 

Until this voice claims its rightful space in South Africa’s politics and in the media, then faux radicals like Malema and Miyeni will continue to infect the public space with their war talk. If the turn of the fascist has, in fact, arrived, then ignoring or censoring their voices is not the answer, as others will merely take their places. Fascist politics can be defeated only through an open political contest.

Duncan is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.

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JudithNkwe Verified user
19 Aug

The turn of the Fascist

Thank you Jane for a good and spine chilling analysis! The misogyny and hatred currently being displayed by the ANCYL is of great concern as it undermines attempts to change the situation around women and child abuse. Neither the ANCYL nor the ANC has addressed the problem of lack on title to land in the former homelands, which would give many people access to land that they have ownership of by proxy. This is holding the land restitution problem in statis.

There seems to be no will to handle the problems which are crying out for solutions that will create jobs either - namely the severe pollution of our catchments and rivers, which need remedying urgently and can be paid for by the polluters.

Respond to this comment

23 Aug

Fascism or Bolshevism

Stalin vs Hitler
SACP vs ANC ( YL )

I am not sure what Prof Duncan is intimating ?

"This is why the political organisation of the unemployed is so crucial to the future of South Africa."

Is she suggesting that the disaffected should be looking to the "LEFT" wing ( socialists , communists ) for their education elucidation and emancipation ?

Western "Liberal " Democracy seems to be a losing candidate.

Are Journalists now Political Scientists ?

Personally I think that the thesis / linkage is tenuous at best and mischevious in intent !

Respond to this comment

24 Aug

Fascist Diatribes

Bibliophile's aggressive response is itself illustrative of the fascism Duncan exposes in ANCYL and elsewhere. Problem is that Bibliophile, like Malema and his cronies, seems not to have the political self-awareness to recognise such tendencies so simply shoot from the hip.

I agree: Fascism is the cynical undermining of democracy but fascist seem the last to see it.

Respond to this comment

14 Nov


Jane Duncan, Terry Bell, Imraan Buccus, the SACP, Paul Trewhela, Gillian Hart etc, etc all think that Malema and the EFF are fascist.

I just read this piece by Ben Fogel. He says not:

If the EFF really is a fascist project there are tough times ahead. That's for sure.

Respond to this comment

15 Nov

Mamphela Ramphele

The first person that I heard calling Malema fascist was Blade Nzimande. More recently Mamphela Ramphele made the same argument.

Yet the EFF said on Power FM that it is only white people making this argument. They are misusing race to end the debate.

16 Nov


Zackie Achmat called Malema a fascist too.