THESE are troubled times globally for pluralism and liberal democracy; and especially in South Africa whose rainbow nation gloss has long looked thoroughly tarnished. In recent weeks the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), third largest party in parliament, has launched a concerted attack on the coloured and Indian communities. In the case of the latter, one particular individual, Ismail Monomiat, a Treasury official, was singled out for supposedly sidelining African colleagues. They have robustly denied this. The Indian community is accused of racism and it and the coloured group are vilified for shunning black political parties. In modern-day South Africa all parties are of course non-racial or they would be illegal, but the EFF never lets facts and truth stand in the way of a good smear.

The EFF has been consistently miscast as left wing although its ideology is extreme African nationalism so far to the right of the local political spectrum it is correct to call it Afro-fascist. All the essential trappings are there: the grand-sounding titles such as commander-in-chief (Julius Malema); the uniforms and headgear (confusingly red); the noisy, populist, disjointed rhetoric; the disruption of parliament; stunts such as firing a weapon at a rally (Malema again); and the stigmatisation of communities as the other, traitors in our midst. Malema and his sidekicks know just which buttons to press, to use words in a way laden with menace that somehow avoids criminal investigation for hate speech.

Attacks on the Indian and coloured communities were not the first troubling display of intemperate African nationalism this year. The death of Winnie Madikizela Mandela in April opened not only a flood of misrepresentation about her role in the anti-apartheid struggle (incitement to violence and refusal to work within authorised ANC structures) but also attacks on prominent figures involved in exposing her destructive methods and criminality. Towards the end of her life she appeared much closer to the EFF than that version of the ANC generally associated with her former husband. There is a link between these outbursts of nationalist populism.

It takes us back thirty years to a time when the apartheid regime and its securocrats were still running the show and the main internal opposition was the United Democratic Front (UDF). As its name suggests the UDF was not a political party, but an alliance of organisations (exactly how many was constantly disputed) that subscribed to a common set of political principles. Otherwise they were free to pursue their particular objectives. UDF affiliates were renowned for long-winded and endless debate in search of a mandate. But they were resolutely non-racial. Indeed, the UDF was arguably the most representative political body South Africa has ever experienced; or ever likely to. Its slightly anarchic tendencies were total anathema to the African nationalists of the ANC and Leninists of the South African Communist Party and it was rolled up with indecent haste and a large measure of coercion and ruthlessness in the early 1990s. It was truly remarkable how people who had fought for many perilous years for democracy caved in to ‘instructions from headquarters’.

But this was not before a large number of talented and remarkable individuals had begun to make their mark. Some of them were already warning of authoritarian and violent tendencies within the ANC/SACP and embedded in this was an expose of Winnie Mandela and her retinue of thugs and criminals that masqueraded as a football team and might, or might not, all have been in the pay of the police security branch. After her death, amid the torrent of fiction that eulogised her life and a tidal wave of populist propaganda, there was the outrageous accusation that the journalists who had been responsible for reporting the Mandela reign of terror such as the Weekly Mail’s Thandeka Gqubule, Nomavenda Mathiane and Anton Harber had been operating as Stratcom agents. Mandela’s friends in the EFF then weighed in with a claim that forty journalists still working in the South African media had been in the pay of Stratcom and threatened to name them one by one. The South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) labelled this a ‘contest of lies and propaganda’. Not surprisingly, nothing further has been heard because the EFF’s tactic is to sow unwarranted, non-actionable suspicion and then move on to other targets. Nor has anything publicly emerged following Gqubule’s request that Stratcom files be opened.

These attacks were particularly egregious, but had a very specific purpose: to discredit and marginalise liberal democratic values such as non-racialism and the rule of law in pursuit of a populist drive towards racial nationalism and Africanism. Removal of South Africa’s champion kleptocrat, Jacob Zuma, from the presidency and the threat this poses to many vested criminal interests amid self-serving claims of victimisation has added fuel to the fire. Among an upsurge of extremist groupings is the Mazibuye African Congress (MAC), clearly allied to Zuma, which prohibits white and Indian membership and has a racist agenda around various economic issues. It is not known if it is linked in a practical way with thugs touring construction sites and demanding sub-contracts at gunpoint; or supposed MK veterans who recently occupied municipal offices in Pietermaritzburg demanding preferment. A sign of the times is extortion in that most flourishing of businesses in the service sector, the funeral industry. Firms claimed to be white are increasingly excluded from the Durban townships and Zuma himself has stated that African bodies should be buried by African undertakers. Hendrik Verwoerd must be applauding (and convulsed with laughter) from the grave. This – after all the years of weary struggle for a non-racial society.

South Africa is witnessing classic right wing, anti-democratic tactics that have global currency. Simplistic patriotic history and blanket generalisation about present grievance are garnished with smears and attacks on supposed counter-revolutionaries or traitors (depending on the source). The new villains are pillars of the liberal democratic establishment (formerly defended to the hilt, but now abandoned, by conservatives) such as the judiciary and rule of law, the responsible media and moderate, thoughtful politicians.

We live in extraordinary times. Past threats to democracy have included fascism, communism and Islamist terrorism but they were highly visible and readily identifiable. Right-wing populism poses an insidious threat all the more dangerous because it is relatively inconspicuous and incremental. To take just one example the limitations on freedom of expression at universities and in the press are relentless, but generally accepted as the new norm because they perform like termites, gradually hollowing out the substance of our rights.

We sleepwalk into the future while the liars and propagandists named by SANEF continue their work.