Let me be the second to congratulate Gareth van Onselen, after he congratulated himself first in the Huffington Post this week. After he wrote on 7 March in Business Day that the Economic Freedom Fighters is a fascist political party, he was parroted by a number of media commentators including the vice chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand, Adam Habib. It is quite astonishing how quickly this new meme has spread amongst the older male commentariat. Was there a WhatsApp group message? Very curious.
Iâ€™m less interested in the debate, suffice it to say that the EFF is not a fascist political party, and I hold no brief for it. As the writer Lukhanyo Vangqa put it soon after this meme erupted across the opinion pages, the EFFâ€™s leadership â€“ with its love of tertiary learning â€“ should be writing cogent and comprehensive rebuttals to all of these columns, instead of snickering on social media.
For the record, Simon Shearâ€™s careful rebuttal of Van Onselen â€“ who by the way is the only one of these columnists to even attempt to provide an intellectual framework for his accusation â€“ is required reading.
I am far more interested in why writers like Max du Preez, Justice Malala and Sikhonathi Mantshantsha fell into line with what is clearly an attempt to rewrite the rules of debate to delegitimise not just the EFF as a political party, but its entire political message too. Van Onselen is attempting to shift the rules of what constitutes valid content in political debate, and the media he so loves to malign for group-think is indulging him without questioning why this should be the case.
Van Onselenâ€™s argument is an ideologically inconsistent mess, but the overall intended effect is to take concepts such as whiteness (no matter how many times it is explained that this doesnâ€™t refer to white people, but a social construct of power), socialism, and even black consciousness off the table. If the EFF leader Julius Malema is a fascist, and his party is a mere extension of his fascism, then everything they say can be dismissed outright, can it not?
For years now, Van Onselen has pretended to have a direct line into Malemaâ€™s innermost thoughts. (And black people in general, whom he frequently diagnoses with â€œself-esteemâ€ issues.) Far more people would find Van Onselenâ€™s bullshit psychology unconvincing if he had a stupid name like Dr O and said it on TV to Oprah. It would be much easier to recognise then for what it is: gibberish.
It is notable that these lists of symptoms that have been drawn to point out fascism in the EFF miss exactly those in organised, white nationalist formations such as AfriForum. Why is that?
It is pretty obvious now that the EFF was first out of the blocks in the lead to the 2019 national elections. The African National Congress was always going to have to wait for the results of its national conference before deciding on the messaging going forward. And the Democratic Alliance â€“ for years, Van Onselenâ€™s employers and even now, a continued subject of keen interest â€“ which has invested much of its energy in the past nine years in an anti-Zuma message, has also been feeling its way forward somewhat awkwardly. (Its own congress only begins in April.) It still doesnâ€™t know how to react to the fact that its unholy marriage to the EFF for the sake of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Nelson Mandela Bay is souring like a pail of milk left out in the sun.
The DAâ€™s problem with the EFF is quite clear: the party in red overalls is an indication as clear as day that there is a big section of ANC or ex-ANC votes that are not available to it, and never will be, because of its right wing policies and membership. These are votes that are well to the left of the ANC â€“ people who espouse black consciousness, Marxist-Leninism, Fanonism, and so on. The DA will never be able to convince them to vote for it, and so the fight now is to shift the window of what is acceptable public discourse so far right that those views will be made illegitimate. Ultimately, this fight is about much more than the EFF. If another party springs up to the left of the ANC, it will face the same smears. If an ordinary citizen makes these arguments, they made be shouted down by reflexive screams of â€œFASCIST!â€
The bad news in the long run for the DA is that South Africa is not immune to post-colonial African politics. The trend since the 1960s is that viable opposition to the dominant liberation movement tends to come either from the left (such as political parties founded by trade unions) or from splits within the dominant party. The DA, in its attempt to replace the ANC, is neither of those things. The EFF is, thoughâ€¦
This is all political entrepreneurship by a satellite of a 22.23% political party against a 6.65% party, and apparently quite a few senior journalists are happily falling for it.
What weâ€™re witnessing is a blatant attempt to write the EFF (and the left broadly speaking) out of South African politics. Itâ€™s being done in the pages of newspapers because this is a conversation intended to influence the thinking of elites, and not on radio where the majority of the electorate would hear it. It may migrate there eventually, where I suspect it will find a far less receptive audience.
Perhaps those writers are happy to do the DAâ€™s work for it for free, and along the way seriously harm the breadth of intellectual and ideological thought in this country. The rest of us shouldnâ€™t be so easily fooled.