Julius Malema's first term as ANC Youth League leader is at an end. In the last three years no one has thrilled, exhausted, deranged and excited our politics nearly as much as he has done. It's been a real ride, from bare bums to nationalisation, through singing about killing people and a trip to Mugabeland, with just one little disciplinary interlude in between. How has he done it? How did he go from a near-nobody to the newsmaker? The short answer? We don't know. The long answer? Read below. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
Okay, let’s start with that mouth. Julius Malema is probably the best political public speaker South Africa has ever produced. Seriously. Sure, we never saw Smuts in action, but we can’t imagine he was anything close. Remember that little shindig at the FNB Stadium the ANC organised just before the local government elections? Remember that phrase: “The DA is for whites, not for you”? Or think of any occasion when Malema and President Jacob Zuma spoke together, can you think of one in which Zuma was not upstaged? Where every news outlet didn’t report first on Malema’s speech and used Zuma’s as an afterthought?
Quite frankly, when it comes to speaking politically Malema is brilliant. His skill is not limited to making speeches and a gift for the soundbite. It’s also that he has mastered the art of speaking in ANC code in a way that no one else has before him. Zuma may have “youngers must respect their elders” at last year’s ANC national general council, but Malema has “South Africa is not a democracy of families”, from the launch of the ANC’s local government election manifesto. No one is able to match Malema in that element.
Then we have what has to be sheer political skill. In many ways.
When Malema first came to power in the League, it was in a mess. Fikile Mbalula had wanted Malema to take over from him, but the conference had been bloody. And naked. Malema just squeaked in. In very little time he was able to remake the League in his own image, incredibly successfully at that. In some ways now, the League is Malema, and he is the League. A search of previous League statements will find the group’s national executive committee stating this rather explicitly, while defending Malema for comments he made that landed him in hot water.
Of course, Malema had help in all of this. Firstly, from Kgalema Motlanthe, who was the person deployed by the ANC to sort out what had happened at the League’s Bloemfontein conference. He presided over the process that saw Malema finally take the job. (That would be the same Motlanthe who is quite popular with the League right now – Ed).
Malema would have had to manage this relationship quite adroitly. But nowhere nearly as adroitly as the way he’s had to manage Zuma. First, there was “bye bye Mbeki bye bye”, which allowed Zuma not to get his hands dirty. Then there was the shocking “I would kill for Zuma”. It really set Malema up as Zuma’s man.
By now Malema appeared to have Zuma’s measure. He then pushed. Hard. He went off to Zimbabwe and told all and sundry that Mugabe was God’s gift. That led to that disciplinary hearing last year. But it was another relationship Malema had managed well that helped to save him. Mathews Phosa, ANC’s treasurer, acted as his defence lawyer and helped, it would seem, ensure he was not suspended.
Then we have his unique ability to play the media. Malema took the issue of Caster Semenya and kept it on the front pages for months. His “there is no word in Pedi for hermaphrodite” reverberated around both those two worlds, cyber and real.
But his real success lay in his use of that song. “Shoot the boer” is one way it’s translated. He turned the entire army of people against him into a massive group of supporters for himself. It was possibly the biggest political reverse since Smuts didn’t bother to campaign in 1948. Many thought at the time he started singing the songs that it was a step too far. Even for him. Boy, was everyone wrong. His testimony in that hate speech trial is one of the main reasons he is likely to be uncontested this week. It was an act of sheer political brilliance.
Talking about political brilliance, nobody in South Africa can even come close to Malema in defining the essence of dog-whistle politics, a most powerful weapon that any populist politician could ever hope to have. Where northern suburbs residents listen to him and hear hatred, madness and economic ruin, the forgotten masses of this country hear “I care, I want to help, I want to take from the evil people and give it to you so your children can live a happier life”. And while northern suburbanites can’t even start understanding it, Malema’s audiences feel the impact of his words viscerally. It is a gift that is rarely given to politicians and if they don’t have, they will never learn. Malema has that gift in spades.
All of this has helped to take Malema to where he is today. He appears to be becoming more powerful as the days go on. Imagine if his latest comments about Zuma, that the league “will always protect him” are true, and Zuma stays on. Or if Malema plumps for Motlanthe, and he wins. Malema really will be in the pound seats then.
But there is one issue he needs to think about. This second term as League leader has to be his last. What will he do then? Campaign for the presidency? Or just to be premier of Limpopo?
If you think that prospect is not appealing for, imagine being the leader of the ANC with a bored Julius to contend with. One without a league to run.
Malema is probably the cleverest politician we’ve had in a long time. He has come from literally nowhere, with no qualifications, and made the political running for the last three years. What he says rings forth across the country in a way Zuma can only dream of. We know what Malema says he is going to do with this power. Nationalise the mines, take land without compensation, just to start with.
The question is: Is there anyone who can stand in his way? DM
Grootes is an EWN reporter.
Photo: The Daily Maverick.
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