Being Julius Malema: understanding Juju – By Desné Masie
Julius Malema, the influential leader of South African ruling party ANC’s youth league, has been the poster boy for white South Africa’s worst fears about the country becoming another ‘Zimbabwe’. Yet, in being Julius Malema, things are not so, well, black and white.
Unlike ‘Mad Bob’, Malema is no borderline-schizophrenic Anglophile. He is a Machiavellian political animal. Likened to Mugabe, and even Hitler, by detractors, Malema is inspired by revolutionary figures such as Ché Guevara, Nelson Mandela, and Fidel Castro.
A self-styled “progressive nationalist”, Malema remains an infuriating contradiction of Gucci-communism and black consciousness braggadocio, with mysterious business interests speculated to be leveraged by his political capital.
Malema maintains a plush mansion, and Landy-du-jour in the style to which he is accustomed. That is to say, cooling off in Louis Vuitton playsuits whilst knocking back several Johnny Walker Blacks after a long, hard day of rallying the youth with machine-gun brandishing minders in tow.
For a man who can fill stadiums with political ecstasy, it is somehow fitting that Malema lives in the style becoming of a political rockstar – relentlessly papped as he is by South Africa’s hardcore corps of political journalists. Herein lies the puzzle of the populist enigma that is Julius Malema. Recently voted by Forbes magazine as one of the 10 most powerful young men in Africa, Malema is globally regarded one of the most influential persons in South Africa.
It seems the presidency of the ANC, which is still de facto the presidency of South Africa, could be Malema’s for the taking in a decade or two – if he wanted it. When quizzed about his political ambitions, Malema, rejects such notions, mostly on the grounds that it would mean the total end of the little privacy he might still enjoy.
Malema’s insistence on being a private person is his defence against said nosy journalists looking into allegations of corruption looming over him: he says that he is not a civil servant, and that he only needs to answer to the South African Revenue Service, and that they are welcome to look, for they will find nothing.
Malema, for his all legendary oratory powers, lacks the composure under fire so desirable in a true leader, and can often be an irrational, objectionable hot-head. But when given a chance to articulate his views on an objective platform, he can also be charismatic, earnest, and seemingly sincere in his convictions.
This is why so many fear, hate and love Malema, and also completely misunderstand him.
To understand Malema, one needs to understand that he was born into grinding poverty in South Africa in 1981. To recognise this, is to also appreciate the full extent of the will and determination that has propelled him into such power, and the lifestyle he now enjoys. This is also to see why Malema wants service-delivery, wants land restitution, wants government ownership of key sectors, wants white South Africans to stop brandishing their sense of entitlement in the faces of blacks, and wants the youth to see the value of education as he does.
Malema, although born after the worst of apartheid, was still born long before democracy proper. Hence, the young Malema is a paradox because the young post-apartheid South Africa is a paradox. Malema grew up in a South Africa where he lived through a rainbow nation miracle, and is disillusioned because he has come to understand the implications of the compromises Mandela made with the National Party at Codesa in the sunset clauses of apartheid’s demise.
Malema speaks the uncomfortable truth that the political freedoms of blacks were gained at the cost of economic freedom in order to realise a peaceful transition. However, to his credit, of which there is little to be found these days, he fully understands that the constitution cannot be tampered with in order to speed up the painfully slow land restitution process without a political majority. Or the installing of black captains of industry, into which the Black Economic Empowerment Act has made a very small dent. And while an understandably problematic proposal for South Africa’s investors, he does see that Government can only acquire 60% of mines, as the ANC youth league would like, by maintaining the long-term interests of investors by the continued distribution of dividends.Malema has put more thought into that process than he is given credit for, even though it will have disastrous long-term consequences for capital flight out of South Africa. Furthermore, he is one of the first people to have spoken out against the truism that Botswana is slowly becoming a dictatorship.
The above are some of the details people do not hear from Malema largely because they do not really listen. This is largely a product of the constant and exaggerated commentary about him. A lot of Malema’s influence is also due to the fact that he is overexposed. It is rare that a day goes by in South Africa’s media where there is no report of some new inflammatory Malemagate which sparks apocalyptic moral outrage.
Malema has been a wily exploiter of the competition for the dominant narrative in articulating a post-apartheid South African identity. And so, going in for shock value, he has hurled several hurtful and racist slurs at whites, using hollow and outdated rhetoric in pitting coloniser against colonised.
It might be that the Truth & Reconciliation Commission did not go far enough in addressing South Africa’s troubled history by not hauling the apartheid generals before it. Yet Malema forgets that many whites did oppose apartheid alongside black revolutionary figures within the ANC such as now deceased ex-communist-party leader Joe Slovo. Britain, in particular, made a significant contribution to the overthrow of apartheid.
It is also right and good that the High Court found Malema guilty of hate speech. The song “Dubul’ibhunu” (“Shoot the boer”) is incitement to murder on racial grounds. The Youth League have protested the ruling, saying the song is intrinsic to the heritage of the ANC and is mobilising for it to be unbanned. But the context in which this song is sung has changed – apartheid is politically over. South Africa cannot afford to be held back in this self-sabotaging fashion by its emotional baggage for much longer, or it will face economic deterioration.
To the surprise of some, the ANC rallied around Malema on the back of the High Court ruling, despite his impending hearing by its national disciplinary committee for bringing the party into diplomatic disrepute on the Botswana issue. And this is the danger that Malema represents, and why he is such a thorn in the side of the ANC leadership – as kingmaker he can mobilise support at the very highest levels of the organisation, as he did in getting the youth league behind Zuma in 2007, and he genuinely connects with the poor, grass-roots ANC supporters who give the organisation its mandate. Yet, he can inspire riots and spew vitriol when cornered, causing material value destruction and the erosion of goodwill towards South Africa and the ANC.
Despite the protestations of ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe, who was reported last week in Johannesburg to have said Malema is “a poison” that must be rooted out of the ANC, the organisation maintained Malema’s fate was not pre-ordained. The much-delayed hearing would be fair, and Malema would have a chance to explain himself. Whether the ANC gives him his marching orders from the organisation or not remains to be seen. The question is, if he goes, will he do so quietly?
Malema’s heart is certainly in the right place as regards South Africa’s transformation. He is right to remind the ANC that it is a people’s organisation predicated on its Freedom Charter. He cannot however suffer from selective amnesia and forget that it also espouses the principle of non-racialism.
Malema’s avarice, impudence, and racism are indefensible in a public figure holding such a responsible position, no matter how justifiably angry he and his supporters are about the slow pace of post-apartheid change.
Desné Masie is a journalist and academic. She is a former senior editor for the Financial Mail in South Africa, and is currently studying towards a PhD in finance at the University of Edinburgh Business School.