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The Indian stereotype fiasco – Malema is a politician chameleon

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By Imraan Buccus

Julius Malema is a real political chameleon. There are times when he has skirted perilously close to outright fascism and times when he has sounded like a liberal Constitutionalist. Like any opportunist he says different things at different times. But at heart he is an authoritarian populist and an ethnic entrepreneur.

Prior to his expulsion from the ANC Malema was part of the corrupt patronage machine. Prior to the breakdown in his relationship with Zuma he was a central player in the group that brought Zuma to power, and our country to the brink of ruination. He has a history of deep complicity with the forces that have done so much damage to our country.

Malema has often made outrageous and deeply right wing statements, particular on matters relating to gender. He has also regularly made statements that are simply a matter of bigotry, rather than anti-racist. This has included the use of a racist colonial term to describe Indians. He has also conducted himself in a highly authoritarian manner with regard to the media, part of the lifeblood of democracy.

Malema, and the EFF as a whole, do not engage in democratic forms of debate. As Steven Friedman, always one of our most astute political commentators, has recently noted the party tends to respond to critique with insult and character assassination rather than debate.

The EFF has enjoyed very little support in Durban. And some of the people who have joined the party in this city are very dubious. They have included a former ANC councillor convicted for participation in xenophobic violence and a young man with with extreme anti-Indian views.

In this context it was a bold move for the EFF to stage a rally at Curries Fountain, a space with a real political history in Durban. The EFF worked hard and were able to fill the stadium. However Malema did not use the occasion to take his audience in a progressive position.

Instead Malema offered his audience a classic colonial stereotype about the Indian shopkeeper. Instead of denouncing exploitation in general he denounced exploitation by Indian bosses. Instead of denouncing the intersection of capital and politics, he denounced the intersection of Indian capital and politics. This is the classic logic of fascism. If we replace ‘Africans’ with ‘Germans’ and ‘Indians’ with ‘Jews’ this quickly becomes clear.

We must make no mistake. There is real racism within the Indian community. There has also been a long-term project by some Indian intellectuals and politicians to deny this. The fact that many Indians played a committed role in the anti-apartheid struggle has often been misused to paint all Indians as committed anti-racists. It is vital that within the Indian community we are honest about the presence of racism and that we tackle it directly when ever we encounter it.

However to present the problems of class and capital as if they were particularly Indian issues is outrageous. Bosses of all races exploit their workers. Capitalists of all races try to use their wealth to win influence over the state. Any progressive politics worthy of the name understands this and communicates it clearly. If questions of class are replaced with questions of ethnicity, all that can happen is that one exploitative elite will be replaced with another.

The EFF has relatively minor electoral support. Most South Africans have refused its authoritarianism and chauvinism. However it does have huge media attention. It is not unusual for the EFF to win far more media attention than much bigger parties. The reason for this is that the media, all in a desperate hunt for ‘clicks’, is attracted to sensationalism. But this hunt for ‘click’s can be very dangerous. It amplifies the space given to demagogues and is part of the explanation why Trump won the American presidency.

It is vital that our media commit to democratic principles and to serious analysis and critique. Richard Poplak of the Daily Maverick has rightly been described as offering reportage of the EFF that is ‘amoral’. Poplak is a stunningly good writer, one of the very best in South Africa. But his coverage of the EFF and Malema is all about the spectacle. He writes as if the spectacle of Malema’s demagoguery, sometimes Constitutionalist and sometimes skirting fascism, is a kind of entertainment. But people like Malema, or Trump, are not a form of entertainment. They are political actors and they need to be engaged as political actors.

In both cases Malema and Trump speak to real grievances and real pain. But they both do so via demagoguery that scapegoats minorities instead of addressing the structural issues that cause social suffering. They both, at times, sail close to the fascist wind.

In a situation like this what is required is moral clarity, unflinching analysis and a real commitment to build a genuinely progressive project. At the moment there is no genuine progressive alternative for voters. The DA is pro-business, neoliberal and unable to tackle racism head-on. The ANC, in large part, has been captured by a form of corrupt nationalism. The EFF offers an authoritarian populism as an alternative, one that is often complicit with dangerous forms of chauvinism.

Curries Fountain is where Cosatu was launched in 1985, with Jay Naidoo in the lead. It is where activists like Strini Moodley and Saths Cooper worked with others to hold the famous pro-Frelimi rally in 1974. It is a place with a glorious political history, a history of Indians and Africans standing together against colonialism and apartheid.

There can be no capitalist resolution of our crisis. If we remain on the capitalist road more and more demagogues and opportunists will arise to exploit the crisis for their own interests. The only real road about of our crisis is a genuine path to socialism, to economic democracy. Those of us who remain committed to anti-racism and a non-racial future need to commit, like people like Naidoo, Moodley and Cooper did in the past, to a mass movement to build a socialist future.

Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, Research Fellow in the School of Sciences at UKZN and the academic director of auniversity study abroad program on political transformation. Buccus promotes #Reading Revolution via Books@Antique at Antique Café in Morningside.

[Source: Sunday Tribune]


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