The invincible Julius Malema is sick – and human

By Stephen Grootes 7 October 2011

In the total sum of human history, illness and frailty have been responsible for many a political upheaval. The untimely death of rulers led to civil wars and battles between contesting candidates for king's job, while an inability to think clearly through ill-health muddled many a political crisis. It looks like illness is going to take a hand in our politics too for a moment. Julius Malema is unlikely to be well again until Sunday, and is expected to stay in hospital until then. And thus it’s only next week Saturday that his disciplinary hearing will get underway. STEPHEN GROOTES dons his surgical mask.

“Julius Malema Sick!” is a headline right up there with “Man Bites Dog”. Your first thought is “Julius…really…physically weak?”. He’s a man with, up until now, an absolutely iron constitution. It seemed that nothing could affect him. Like his political guru, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, he’s appeared indestructible. The only hint that the normal rules of health and physical life do apply to him has been a slight spreading around the middle of late. Think of the hate, vitriol and anger that get spewed at him every day. It makes being Springbok rugby coach look like a picnic with friends. And yet, up until now, Malema has just kept on trucking. So him being sick has a huge shock value. It could, actually, turn out to matter.

Firstly, being ill takes him out of political circulation for a while. It means that he’s not as in touch as he would like to be. Sure, his loyal lieutenants will run the shop while he’s gone, but the ANC Youth League is very much in his image. Can you name any of other top five leaders? And if you’re in the middle of a political battle, with say, the KwaZulu-Natal branch of the League, well, you need to lead from the front.

Then we have what could be the real reason for this sudden bout of “flu”. It’s stress. This must be an indication of how much pressure he’s actually under. Think of what he’s been through in just this year; the hate speech trial, his public spat with Lindiwe Mazibuko, his own re-election, constant media revelations and just plain attacks. All of those take hours out of your day. But the final straw that broke the Malema constitution was probably the fight with President Jacob Zuma. Everything else he could shrug off, this one he could not; for the first time in his political history, his actual survival was at stake. It’s a horrible thing to have had your way all the time, and then to suddenly come up against a brick wall. Essentially that’s what’s happened. And he hasn’t learnt the survival mechanisms to cope, yet. Those come with maturity.

But the other possible reason for this is his lifestyle. Not just the politics, but the partying. Malema lives the life of a rock-star. He is all about living fast, and getting ill young. His life features fast cars, big houses and fancy clubs. The young man simply doesn’t go to bed when he should. And when he does, it may not be entirely sober. Nothing wrong with that, but when you do it all the time, and then have a heavy stressful next day, those nights are going to add up.

This could turn out to be his Achilles heel. Zuma does not drink. It seems he may have lost the habit during his years on Robben Island. Malema does. So do plenty of other ANC leaders, they are ordinary normal people after all. But, perhaps because of their age, they show a bit more moderation. There’s possibly a generational aspect to this. If you’re over 40 and hold a senior ANC position now, the years you would have learnt to party seriously were during the struggle. And if you were in the ANC then, you didn’t have as much time for that as Malema does now. But either way, Malema and the set he moves with, could find that what doctors call “lifestyle issues” could come to count against them.

So the longer-term impact of this illness could have more to do with its causes than with the sickness itself. But there are some short-term affects as well.

Obviously this delays his disciplinary hearing even further. There are several implications of this, but what makes this situation different is that Malema is now not really available to work on his own defence. And a defendant is often needed to do a bit of that. Here, where it’s a legal and a political question, the politics is what will really matter. He’s out of the picture; he can’t do the face-to-face lobbying that matters. That’s bad for him.

Malema also has to be treated. That’s a simple thing. But he’s put his health before his politics by going to a private hospital, in another sign of his talk-poor-live-rich policy. And while as a lifestyle that hasn’t hurt him yet, it still adds to the weight of the accusations that he is hypocritical. No doubt he will come out with some fire and brimstone about how he had no choice and how the rich are somehow responsible. But still, to be treated by a hospital group started by the Rembrandts is just not good politics. Bear in mind, this is the same family that owns part of Naspers, and thus the City Press.

What’s also a bad sign is that in virtually every long criminal trial involving a public person, as it starts to near its end, the accused gets ill. And when that happens, the end, legally speaking, is often very near indeed. It’s a sign that things are getting to them, that there really is no way out. And then the psychology of it affects the physicality of the person concerned. In Malema’s case, the prospect of being flung out of the ANC would be particularly painful. This is the organisation that he has always said he existed for. He tried to join as a mere child, in a way, it’s his family. Without it, he’s nothing. And as the consciousness of how serious this actually is sinks in, that must have an impact.

Malema could well bounce back. He’s a young man. But his life is tough at the moment. And it shows no signs of getting any easier. DM



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