EFF leader Julius Malema is seen at a press conference held by the party in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. The EFF has declared war against the Gupta family, known supporters of President Jacob Zuma. Picture: THE TIMES/ALON SKUY
EFF leader Julius Malema is seen at a press conference held by the party in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Picture: THE TIMES/ALON SKUY

RADICALS — reformers, activists, extremists, call them what you will — are part, and not part, of every society. Readers do not need examples: in France, in the UK, in Iran, Pakistan and other Asian countries, across the Middle East, they are to be seen more than ever today, some working for good, some for ill, some more famous — or notorious — than others.

Political extremism — Isis, Boko Haram to name two among countless others — implies a significant coercive movement depending on a broad and particular context to take root and flourish, as Nazism and Stalinism did in a largely undemocratic Europe in the past century.

How then to look at two radicals or extremists, both falling into the famous or notorious category: Donald Trump in the United States and Julius Malema here in South Africa? Can they lead, have they led, to extremism?

Finding Mr Trump as awful as just about everyone else, Douglas Gibson writes in a recent article, "American democracy trumped": "Trump has proved in this campaign that a candidate can say anything and get away with it".

In fact, he hasn’t done any such thing yet. US free speech permits political candidates to be crude and vulgar and, like children when they are cross, to say anything they want. But the US people decide if they get away with it. In presidential elections that follow the primaries and in which voters elect their president direct. Even if he wins the nomination, Mr Trump still has a mountain to climb and may find his free speech has won him few helpers and friends.

There is another way to look at what’s going on. Whether or not he seems to be preaching extremism, Mr Trump is most certainly an extreme example of the politics of entertainment. The politics of entertainment lays down that, like everything else in today’s 24/7 surround-sound mass media world, politics has to amuse and divert. If it isn’t entertaining, politics won’t get a look in. On top of giving folk some timeless punch-and-judy knockabout, Mr Trump can also be seen as a useful fool in America: he says all the repugnant things "ordinary people" often feel, but fortunately do not generally practice. In America’s established, confident democracy, he is cathartic rather than incendiary.

Like Mr Gibson, I believe the world needs the US and what it stands for, and I am sticking with arguably the country’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, who always trusted the American people to do the right thing when it came to having their say.

Will that be the case in South Africa with Julius Malema, commander-in-chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters, a party some see as major opposition already and would like to see as the future government?

Mr Malema is the sworn enemy of President Zuma and African National Congress (ANC), the term of abuse he uses to distinguish between the late great ANC and what he relentlessly attacks now as Mr Zuma corrupted party.

He gives away nothing to Donald Trump in terms of radicalism: Mr Trump promises to expel Muslims and to build a wall between the United States and Mexico; Mr Malema’s declared objective, after getting rid of President Zuma, is to rid the country of "whiteness" and overthrow the status quo. In the context of South Africa’s young and fragile democracy, it is impossible to see Mr Malema as a useful fool.

Imperfect as its democracy is, however, South Africa is plainly a democracy of sorts. Of course the country’s elections this year are not about electing a president; they are local elections. In any case, presidents are not elected by the people of South Africa even in national elections. After voting a party into government, you get the president the party gives you, take it or leave it. The ANC gave us President Zuma.

Prophesy is foolhardy. But it seems safe to say this year’s elections cannot avoid being also a verdict on President Zuma’s disastrous presidency, inevitably dragging in the ANC’s overall performance.

The revolutionary Mr Malema has been oddly quiet on this point so far, perhaps because, by Marxist-Leninist rules, he should really shun, or at the least sniff at, elections as a bourgeois instrument of oppression; as ever it is not certain where he stands. But shuffle his position as he may, the coming elections will surely be a verdict on Mr Malema and EFF extremism, as the presidential elections in the US will be on Mr Trump and the Republican Party.

These are not easy times in the US and they are hard times for South Africa with harder times to come. In the elections in both democracies this year, will the people do what Mr Lincoln always trusted the American people to do?

• Whelan is a graduate of the London School of Economics and a freelance journalist