Ismail Lagardien: Malema a master tactician

The EFF and its leaders are enjoying a massive love-in at the moment. We may want to believe that the legitimacy of the state-party nexus is so poor that any alternative is better.

Alternatively, the EFF may have pulled off a masterful tactical diversion. My sense is that it is a tactical diversion. Consider the following. The EFF has shown an increased interest in and respect for the authority of cornerstone institutions of South Africa’s political economy.

The EFF leader, Julius Malema, himself seems to have moderated his public behaviour.

In parliament, the EFF has shown deference to the rules of the legislature and to the constitution.

Elsewhere, the EFF has urged support for the National Treasury.

Last week, Malema actually suggested that the World Bank, and the governments of Canada, the US and China assist with probing corruption in South Africa.

When all these things are viewed together it shows a considered deference to the rule of law, especially the constitution and parliament, to the integrity of the National Treasury, and a tacit acknowledgement of global interdependence and international co-operation.

This tacit acknowledgement of global interdependence and international co-operation is quite a change from the autarky that is at the base of the EFF’s economic policies.

We should not get too carried away.

The EFF has elevated bumper sticker philosophies, name-calling and character assassination to a gladiatorial art.

Nobody criticises EFF policies or leadership and slips back behind the parapet unscathed.

So if it is, indeed, a diversion tactic, the EFF is winning key battles in the public perception.

Given that we are dealing with a group known as “fighters” with “commanders”, military-strategic analysis may be appropriate.

In the simplest of terms, a military diversion includes changes in prescribed moves without actually changing the destination or main objective.

In other words, the EFF remains focused on its main objectives, but has placed them on the back burner.

Let us recall that in November last year Malema said: “We are not calling for the slaughter of white people‚ at least for now.” The key, here, is “at least not for now”. In military strategic terms, his recently demonstrated deference is, as explained above, diversionary tactics that include changes in prescribed moves (they are not calling for the slaughter of white people) without actually changing the destination or main objective. The slaughter (his word) can wait for later. Frighteningly, Malema and the EFF may be borrowing from the playbook of fascism and the tactical manoeuvres of Benito Mussolini, one of the 20th century’s most dangerous people.

In his early political career, Mussolini set in motion a set of decisive tactical diversions without ever losing sight of the ultimate prize – absolute power and control over Italian society.

For instance, Mussolini purposefully ingratiated himself with the aristocracy, industry leaders, working classes (employed and unemployed) and, of course, with the all-powerful Catholic Church.

This egregious currying of favour was especially pronounced when, after 10 years of civil marriage, in 1925 Mussolini remarried Rachele Guidi in a Catholic church.

Italians were convinced, on the basis of this, that he was a more gentle and kind leader. It was, however, a tactical manoeuvre. Mussolini simply sought to ingratiate himself with Pope Pius XI in a country that was overwhelmingly Catholic.

There are several parallels between the early Mussolini and Malema’s tactical diversions.

Mussolini drew his inspiration from a highly divided society.

He also tapped into the belief that Italy was economically controlled from outside the country in collaboration with local elites.

We may recall that in November last year, Malema also said: “This country is still in the hands of the colonial masters. This country is still in the hands of white people. This country is controlled from London.”

Perhaps most crucially, one of the outstanding features of Mussolini’s rise was the way in which he drew support from a restless population because of a rapidly worsening crisis of legitimacy of the Italian state.

South Africa, too, finds itself in a crisis of legitimacy.

This much can be drawn from a paper by Khathutshelo Netshitenzhe, one of the ANC’s finest intellectuals, who drew attention to “declining legitimacy” of the state “occasioned by, among other factors, corruption and patronage” in March last year.

For good measure, we can also throw in Mussolini’s rhetoric that the ruling elite had betrayed the heroism of the past, from whence he drew the core of his support.

Consider, now, the way that Malema is tapping into disaffected cadres of the liberation movement qua ruling elite.

In short, Malema may be a master tactician, and none of us have been removed from his cross hairs permanently.

He remains focused on his main strategic objective, but has, in the meantime, created some very clever diversionary tactics.

It is worth bearing in mind that Mussolini did not seize power. He was invited to take it.

Dr Ismail Lagardien is executive dean of business and economics at NMMU.

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