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Far-right populism: what the Left can learn from the Right

A woman walks past an IEC poster during an election. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

A woman walks past an IEC poster during an election. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Jan 23, 2023

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By Vusi Gumbi

“Left” and “Right” originally referred to where people sat in the French National Assembly, the legislature that was established in France following the French Revolution in 1789: to the right, as seen from the speaker’s vantage point, were the nobles and higher-ranked religious figures – those disposed to preserving existing conditions and institutions, with nationalistic viewpoints, including fascism and other oppressive ideologies. The seated commoners and the clergy were to the left – those who held more radical viewpoints related to attaining greater social and economic equality. That was the birth of left- and right-wing politics as we know it.

Notwithstanding those who have tried to accommodate both, globally a line has been drawn in politics between these two ideological standpoints – the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots. Major turning points in politics worldwide have generally been driven by and associated with the Left.

In France in 1793, the rebels and the commoners who sat on the left-hand side of the speaker in parliament influenced the Reign of Terror – which commenced as a rallying cry against a system that encouraged the rich to be richer and left the poor for dead. The small country of North Vietnam held its own against a US that wanted to prevent a communist takeover in the south-east Asian country during a war that lasted 19 years, culminating in North and South Vietnam coming together, united under a communist banner, in 1976. And 2015 saw the emergence of the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements at South African universities, which were largely driven by epistemological disobedience to achieve curriculum transformation and affordable tertiary education.

In recent years, however, as the world becomes more polarised than ever, right-wing politicians have shown more courage to go after what they want – in some instances, even if it means disregard for the rule of law.

On January 6, 2021, outgoing US president Donald Trump’s supporters stormed Congress in an attempt to block the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory, in what was the end of a presidency whose rise was a result of racism becoming more accepted in US politics and the Republican electorate having been radicalised.

Two things in particular stand out in this matter concerning Trump urging his supporters to protest at the Capitol to prevent the election from being “stolen”. First, it brought attention to the insidious normalisation of far-right politics. Second, despite the gravity of the situation and the terrifying nature of this fascist coup attempt, many Republican leaders continued to support Trump – to the extent that he is seen as the front runner to be the party’s presidential candidate in 2024.

Granted, the attack on the US Capitol demonstrated the threat of far-right politics to democracy and the rule of law. However, the incident also showed how determined right-wingers are in pursuit of what they truly want. They showed the courage historically associated with left-wingers, but which has sadly faded away at a time it is needed the most.

In Brazil, leftist Lula da Silva completed his political comeback when he was inaugurated as President of Brazil on January 1, 2023, after a narrow win over former president Jair Bolsonaro, a right-winger. In what became déjà vu-like, seven days later, on January 8, the former president’s supporters stormed the capital, Brasilia, destroying property and vandalising the offices of legislators, the presidency and the Supreme Court, demanding that Bolsonaro be reinstated.

But that was not the first instance of right-wingers targeting Lula da Silva. In an attempt to stop Da Silva from running for president in the 2018 presidential elections, his right-wing detractors cooked up charges against him which saw him sentenced to 12 years in prison. The judge who handed down the sentence was later appointed justice minister by the eventual winner of those elections, Jair Bolsonaro. Lula da Silva’s sentence was overturned by the Supreme Court and he was released after serving 19 months in prison, but that is beside the point. The extent to which right-wingers will go to get what they want must serve as a reference point for leftists who seek to achieve greater social and economic parity.

Back home in South Africa, the nation’s official opposition, the DA, lost conservative voters in the 2019 general elections to right-wing Afrikaner political party the Freedom Front Plus. This was due to the DA’s attempt to try to appeal to black voters, which unsettled conservatives who had backed it previously. The DA has prided itself on being a diverse party, and it is quite telling that it lost electoral ground primarily on that basis. Right-wingers are insecure about their future, even though they remain privileged.

Right-wingers are resolute; they are unwavering in their pursuit of the society they want. Whether it means storming the seat of government in the US and Brazil to try and overturn free and fair elections, they are resolute. Whether it means the formation of an AfriForum that will build a whites-only university and go to court to fight for the legalisation of the apartheid flag, they are resolute. Whether it means developing a whites-only town in South Africa, in Africa, where Africans are not allowed, they are resolute. And that is what the Left can learn from the Right, and the steadfastness to do it in one voice.

With the rise of China and a shift in the global balance of forces, the echoes of the Cold War in the US-inspired Russia-Ukraine war (which signals the need for a new world order), and the return of Lula da Silva in Brazil, this is what the Global South can learn from the Global North, this is what the East can learn from the West: the importance of being resolute, unwavering and intentional… and, most importantly, being united.

* Vusi Gumbi is a Research Assistant at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation who recently obtained his MA in Politics with distinction.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL.