As South Africa shifts into election gear, a number of commentators have argued that Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) should be labelled as fascists or as a protofascist political phenomenon.
Fascism first reared its uglyhead in Europe in the crisis of the 1930s.
In Germany, Spain and Italy, fascist governments came to power, all with disastrous consequences.
German fascism, under Adolf Hitler, became the most evil regime of the modern era.
Fascism only emerges in times of crisis.
It is a form of socialism wrapped up in hypernationalism and organised via a political authoritarianism under a demagogic leader.
It is able to exploit an economic and social crisis to offer young men a feeling of belonging and an illusory path to respect.
As a number of commentators have noted, the Nazi party campaigned on a platform of nationalising industry and expropriating land, but unlike a left-wing socialist party, it mixed this up with hyper nationalism.
Fascism, or national socialism, tries to rally the working class and the poor behind a politics that is authoritarian.
Since the end of World War 2, fascism has appeared in a number of nations: Chile in the 1970s, the Bharatiya Janata Party in India and the Golden Dawn in Greece.
Fascism emerges when liberal politics and the left have failed to offer a credible alternative.
South Africa is currently in a crisis.
The middle class may not feel it, but for the so-called masses, life is increasingly impossible.
There is no work, education is appalling and corruption is endemic.
When people have tried to organise themselves, they have faced repression. The governing party does not have the capacity to resolve the crisis.
The left has failed to offer a credible way out of the crisis and most of the middle class left has retreated into nongovernmental organisations and universities, where it has failed to connect to mass struggles.
The middle class left has also tended to obsess about policy and legal questions.
The result of all this has been that while there are vibrant local struggles, the national arena has been left wide open for Malema.
He is corrupt, demagogic and authoritarian. His recent comment about Afrikaners and Indians being “behind” his problems with the SA Revenue Service proves this.
He is capable of descending into racism to hide his personal failures.
Although no popular organisations have rallied to Malema’s call, a number of individual opportunists have declared their support for him.
With dictators like Robert Mugabe as role models and his preference for militaristic political symbolism, it is clear he has nothing but contempt for democracy.
A number of young people, mostly middle class with limited education, have bought into the idea that Malema is a left-wing radical.
But he has no record of real day-to-day solidarity with the struggles of workers and the poor.
The problem with dealing with fascism in a democracy is that fascists are happy to use elections to come to power.
Hitler was elected. But once they have power, they will never cede it to the popular will.
As a democracy, we have to give Malema the same space as everyone else to organise, to argue for his positions and to run for office.
But at the same time, we need to be clear-eyed about what he stands for.
If we are not able to build a credible left, the day may come when we look back on the neoliberal era with nostalgia.
» Buccus is a research fellow in the school of social sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the academic director of a university study-abroad programme on political transformation
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