The global corrosion of public confidence in conventional politics and the now obvious nexus between money and power is one prism through which we might view the phenomenon that is Julius Malema. Yesterday, the CIC of the EFF – in a venue that once epitomised power, privilege, whiteness and exclusion – utterly charmed a constituency, some of whom we can safely assume lie awake at night bedevilled by apocalyptic visions should he ever come to power. By the time he left some were posing for selfies. By MARIANNE THAMM.
The quiet pok pok of tennis balls being lobbed across the court by ladies with nothing better to do at 10.30am on a Thursday morning punctuated the tranquility of the groomed precincts of the Kelvin Grove Club in Newlands Cape Town, home from home to some the city’s Wasps this week. Across the way from the courts, elderly retired gentlemen coagulated around croquet hoops contemplating their next move, oblivious to who exactly would soon be cruising into the reserved parking space outside the ‘stately’ main building of the club.
Kelvin Grove describes itself as a “unique and multi-faceted” space that conjures to mind (according to the website blurb) notions of “history, heritage, tradition and excellence”.
It was the perfect venue then for yesterday’s Cape Town Press Club luncheon with the EFF commander-in-chief, Julius Malema, as its guest speaker. By 10.30am the Grill Room was packed with a predominantly white, elderly audience including the city’s media stalwarts who keep the Press Club alive.
Photo: A somewhat ironic positioning, isn’t it? (Marianne Thamm)
Malema had clearly carefully calibrated how he would come across to this audience. At the end of it he was like a snake charmer tossing in gems like “those of you who have money must not only finance people who agree with you. Democracy means the right to defend your right to disagree with me so you would be supporting democracy”, and “we are a multiparty democracy and we must celebrate that”, finally topped mischievously with “I am saying this because we are meeting here in a building that reflects old money”, which sent a ripple of mirth through the room.
Earlier Malema had arrived half an hour late in his now trademark postbox red overall unaccompanied by bodyguards and with little of the fanfare that has come to be associated with the political classes. He greeted those at the entrance with a cheery “hello” before taking his vacant seat as guests finished tucking into their chicken schnitzel, chips (no Tim Noakes here) and Greek salad.
What to expect? The belligerent member of parliament? The fiery populist? The enemy of capital and all things sacred within the carpeted colonial corridors of Kelvin Grove?
Clutching his iPad Malema began his address in calm measured tones, greeting the media and guests and making a point of including the serving staff at the venue. He then set out the EFF’s now familiar policies on land restitution without compensation, the nationalisation of banks and mines and a national minimum wage for workers. Eyes were clearly glazing as they peered over spectacles.
Then there was the now common riff on the corrupted and corrupting ANC under President Jacob Zuma’s watch. The audience perked visibly. It was a party, Malema said, with “no substance, breadth or ideas”, filled with lackeys and “voting cattle” who simply did Zuma’s bidding in parliament, a party that had been shaken up and energised by the arrival of the EFF in parliament. A party who had simply accepted the rules – which he said were actually merely “regulations” – handed to them by the former apartheid government.
Malema was, however, his most nimble, articulate and witty answering questions from the audience afterwards. And it was not an audience that had come intending to let him off lightly.
Listening to Malema speak and interact one could not but be struck by how post-post modern a politician he is. He embodies a compelling mix and complex layering of signifiers that all coalesce into a representation, on some level, of the changing nature of the political game – perhaps even globally. A younger generation who has grown tired of the lies and deceit of the ruling classes who are in cahoots with lobby groups and big money. Politicians like Malema, swept into parliament (albeit by around only one million votes) and who claim not to be beholden to “interest groups” but by the trust placed in them by that X on the ballot.
Perhaps this all began when George W Bush lied about those weapons of mass destruction before invading Iraq. Perhaps it all got worse when the bankers stole everyone’s money and governments bailed them out after 2008. Globally young people have become more and more disenchanted with political “business as usual”. And in the South African context Malema is emblematic of that growing disillusionment. And he knows it.
Many have spoken of Malema’s appeal. He himself attributes his rise due to a leadership vacuum in the ruling party – “nature hates a vacuum” – but he is so much more than just this.
One of the least obvious aspects of his appeal is, of course, fame. In a world obsessed with celebrity and renown – which has, thanks to US-style politics, jumped like a virus from Hollywood into the political realm – fame brings with it an often-undeserved cachet (albeit often unconsciously). No one wants to take a selfie with a nobody.
Malema is part unique creation (the overall), part pastiche (the beret), part ideological magpie (a Marxist democrat); he’s a feminist, a non-racialist, a champion of the poor, a socialist prepared to work with capital as “we can’t do it on our own”. He represents a new generation of politician capable of cutting through the crap, protocol and genteel niceties that have, until now, passed for civilised political discourse. And he certainly knows how to play to any constituency.
During his address Malema tossed in a bit of Marx, a bit of Mandela’s non-racial rainbow-ism, references to Helen Suzman’s oppositional courage, the sanctity of the rule of law, how white women are still excluded from the economy (to cheers and claps) and how we needed to hold government and politicians accountable.
“Don’t be afraid of us, engage,” he told the audience.
And if Helen Zille and the DA thought they could lay claim to Mandela, Malema yesterday cited apartheid-era opposition stalwart Helen Suzman as a shining example of what could be accomplished from the benches of opposition.
“The ANC has no regard for this parliament. To them it is nothing. It is a place to milk money. Not even apartheid politicians undermined parliament this way. Helen Suzman used parliament to unearth the truth from apartheid ministers because they could not lie under oath or undermine parliament,” he told the by now charmed audience.
He added that what was saving the country from tipping into lawlessness were the courts.
“The courts of South Africa are intact and not politically manipulated. He [Zuma] wants to corrupt the courts. Once you corrupt the law you are finished. The only thing we have left are the courts. This is where we go to receive justice. There they don’t just work on hearsay. Here you must bring the evidence and it must be beyond reasonable doubt,” Malema said to murmurs of approval.
If anyone was searching for darker political portents then it was Malema’s reference to the prevention of “a leaderless revolution”.
In the Western context, the idea is one that sees the return of political power to the masses and is explored by Carne Ross, a former British foreign office diplomat who resigned in disgust after the invasion of Iraq, in his book The Leaderless Revolution.
Ross is of the opinion that the nation state, an idea central to global politics, no longer meets the needs of modern citizens. Ross’ thesis promotes the idea of citizens taking action and ignoring government and that the state and its hierarchies should be opposed. The ‘Occupy’ movement is part of this development.
But Malema’s idea of this leaderless revolution, should it occur in South Africa, is chaotic and apocalyptic. (The suggestion of course being that HE might just be the very leader required to contain the rage of the dispossessed, hungry masses that will rise up and destroy what they cannot enjoy or share.)
“You may not agree with me, I don’t expect you to agree with me but these things must be said. There must be an organisation that leads. If there is no leadership our people will lead themselves and we will have an unled revolution and that is anarchy,” Malema told his audience.
The masses, he said, needed an organisation that would be able to tell the revolutionaries that someone “is looking into these matters” and that we be “given an opportunity to engage”.
“If all of us appear as if we have been swallowed by the system, the uprising will not only attack white people this time but also the black elite. We stand to be attacked. And that is why we must rise in defence of all South Africans and be seized with these issues.”
It was veteran broadcaster Leslie McKenzie, who in his characteristic dulcet Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation accent, rose to thank Malema for his surprising frankness and for not suggesting, “whites be driven into the sea”.
“Now why would we do that? We love you. We are a non-racial party and have been so since the start. We want to continue Nelson Mandela’s project, which was ultimately economic freedom for the masses. Whoever brought that banner that the honeymoon is over for whites to an EFF rally does not know our policy. We have distanced ourselves from that. We are internationalist in outlook. The world does not only exist with black people. Actually we are a minority so why would we hate white people and still declare ourselves internationalists? Marx was white.”
And with that the CIC left the room to cheers, firm handshakes and one or two people trying desperately to get a selfie. Just another day in South African politics. DM
Main photo by Marianne Thamm.