Although charisma is an important trait for political figures to cultivate and utilise, especially in our social-media laden landscape of the 21st century, too much charisma can mask a lack of substance in favour of championing self-serving, politically expedient ideas.
Last week, former United States president Barack Obama delivered the 2018 Nelson Mandela Annual Memorial lecture in Johannesburg. In a speech covering a range of topics, Obama emphasised the emerging challenge posed by increasing political polarisation that seems to be blanketing much of the world.
Many felt he was subtly referring to President Donald Trump, but his cautionary words also ring true for Julius Malema, because of the ways in which both figures rely on charisma rather than courage, to stoke the fires of polarisation, as well as fear and resentment. Although Trump and Malema stand on opposite sides of the political spectrum, they use similar tactics to articulate their positions and get their messages across.
Indeed, what links Malema and Trump together is the conflation of charisma with courage. When Malema speaks, some marvel at his ability to “speak truth to power”; when Trump speaks, some love that he “tells it like it is”. In both instances, we conflate the charisma of Malema and Trump with the courage required of a leader.
There are challenges posed by placing too much emphasis on the charisma embodied by Trump and Malema, that help to illustrate the danger of conflating charisma with courage. Charismatic politicians can become reliant on their charisma, as if it were a policy unto itself. In addition to this, charisma can easily become self-serving and oriented towards its affirmation. In this way, charisma is about form and the expediency of ideas that’s primarily aided by style rather than substance.
In contrast, courage is about substance and perseverance. Having courage requires the confidence to stick to one’s principles, even when they’re not political expedient, because they represent an ideal bigger than any one politician. To steel political cultures from the myopia of charisma, it’s crucial that we promote a courageous centre underpinned by perseverance and principles.
Although charisma is an important trait for political figures to cultivate and utilise, especially in our social-media laden landscape of the 21st Century, too much charisma can mask a lack of substance in favour of championing self-serving, politically expedient ideas.
The difficulty with charismatic politicians is that they would have us believe that charisma and courage are the same thing. However, when politics plays out in a polarised landscape, and becomes oriented to a cult of personality (think “Trump’s America”, or blind deferrals and loyalty to the Malema as “Commander-in-Chief”), the charisma necessary to stand up and say anything at all looks and sounds courageous.
Trump seemed to anticipate this development in American politics, and fashioned himself as a political outsider with the courage to stand up to “Washington elites”. Using his charisma, he tapped into the resentment people feel towards politicians they perceive to be out of touch, which proved to be masterful, as his base gravitated—and still gravitates—toward this approach, despite all outcomes.
Malema makes use of a similar strategy, as he also fashions himself as a political outsider looking to upend the framework of South Africa’s economy with a radical new approach, much to the chagrin of his base. When Malema speaks, it’s hard not to pay attention—as is the case with Trump. He’s intelligent, witty and has the powerful ability to drum up support in areas neglected by other parties. Though, his radicalism sometimes appears more charismatic than courageous.
The stir created over the renaming of the Cape Town International Airport, and whether the it would be renamed after the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela or not, is a case in point of the shortcomings of political expediency. The debate about renaming the airport is an emotive issue that lends itself well to a charismatic politician like Malema, who can exploit it to advance the Economic Freedom Fighter’s (EFF) brand.
This approach, however, illustrates how the issue quickly became about Malema and the EFF’s charismatic ability to control what otherwise could’ve been an important conversation about the symbolic significance of South Africa’s complicated past — never mind the fact that lots of South Africans can’t afford to fly.
More recently, Malema’s defence of VBS Mutual Bank, what he referred to as “our bank”, suggests his courageousness is more flexible than it is principled. The kind of corruption committed by VBS, such as the defrauding of dozens of municipalities and wholesale looting, is the same kind of corruption the EFF positioned itself in opposition to as it built up its credibility as an opposition party — corruption that takes poor South Africans for granted, while using their humanity as cover for financial gain.
Additionally, Malema’s criticism of Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan, whose authority Malema has tried to undermine in the name of promoting “African representation”, is a posturing only a politician relying on charisma would take up. He accused Gordhan of acting unfairly in his management, and for previously “humiliating” him, which is not the same as acting illegally. Nevertheless, Malema seems to be using his charisma to turn a personal score between him and Gordhan, into an example of his courageousness to stand up to the ANC.
Though, after nearly a decade of State-Owned Enterprises being utilised as vehicles for corruption, Malema’s questioning of Gordhan, along with his defence of VBS Mutual Bank, are positions devoid of substance. They reflect how the courage to stand up to corruption must not be based on the pliability of an issue to be spun into an expedient, self-serving affirmation of one’s charisma. Such instances only contribute to furthering the political polarisation within South Africa, because they encourage people to choose sides, not take positions.
Although both the Trump and Malema operate in different political landscapes, to avoid the conflation of charisma over courage, South Africa needs to actively build a political centre, underpinned by courage and principles that persevere in the face of expedient attempts to churn the fires of polarisation. Otherwise, we may grow to fear and resent each other more and more. DM