Op-Ed

Covering Julius Malema and the EFF: It’s not an obsession, it’s good journalism

By Ismail Lagardien 21 August 2019
Caption
EFF supporters gathered at the Orlando Stadium for the Tshela Thupa Rally ahead of the general elections on 08 May 2019. Photo: Felix Dlangamandla/Netwerk24

There are occasional references on social media to individual journalists being “obsessed” with Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). We should be clear. There is no obsession. The focus on Malema and the EFF is simply good journalism zooming in on what is probably the greatest threat to stability, trust and creating a progressive society with justice for everyone.

History offers stark warnings against ignoring the rise of dangerous political forces. The most notable of this blindness was the way that the press ignored the rise of fascism in 1920s Europe — especially the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazis — and underreported the Holocaust.

We should add, immediately, that Malema is not a Hitler, and we are very far away from the mass slaughter of World War II. Malema is closer, in public conduct, rhetoric and spectacle to the 1920s fascism of Benito Mussolini. Daily Maverick has previously drawn attention to these parallels. We know, from history, that newspapers that ignored the rise of Hitler (and failed to adequately cover his persecution of Jews) or dismissed him as an aberration, would come to regret their dismissals and decisions to treat the dictator lightly.

The importance of intellectual honesty in news judgment.

In her book, Buried by the Times, Laurel Leff, professor of journalism at Northwestern University, showed that between 1939 and 1945, the duration of World War II, the New York Times published at least 23,000 front-page stories, 11,500 of which were about the war, with a mere 26 about the Holocaust — in which at least 6 million people were killed. In a documentary film based on the book, and in response to specific instances of underplaying the general threat of the Nazis and of their brutal slaughter of Jews, a former New York Times reporter, Alex Jones, explains:

It was a bad judgment call. It was something that matters as much as anything as far as news judgment, and The New York Times blew it.”

South African newspapers cannot afford the luxury of defanging political parties that threaten warfare, bloodshed and vengefulness. South Africa is a democratic country with one of the best constitutions in the world. There are established legal passages open to effect changes in society. On this basis, there is a need for intellectual honesty when making news judgments, and there is sufficient evidence to support and encourage a sharper focus on the EFF and its leaders.

It differs from other parties (most notably the ruling ANC or the Democratic Alliance) on processes of redress, reconciliation, land reform and rolling back the lingering injustices of the past. The EFF promises violence, issues threats and takes some pride in its disruptions — most of which may be ascribed to their spectacle.

The spectacle and the perversion of dressing down

An easy response to suggestions that the press is disproportionately “obsessed” with the EFF and Malema, is quite obvious. EFF attracts a lot of attention because of the spectacle it presents. It really is quite straightforward, or at least it should be.

The EFF arrived on the political scene in bright colours, a lot of noise, and dressed in workers’ clothing. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that it has attracted attention at this level of spectacle. The romance and celebration of its spectacle should not cloud intellectual integrity on the part of individual journalists, or the media, in general.

The EFF’s style of dress is expedient and exploitative (perhaps even quite shameful “dressing down” or performance radicalism), in the sense that its leaders have the privilege of getting out of worker’s garb at the end of the day, and slipping into comfortable, and as evidence has shown, quite luxurious, somewhat garish opulence and, at best, middle-brow fashion. Workers do not have that luxury.

On the face of things, this is no different from CEOs spending a night on the streets with homeless people. The CEOs have the privilege of going back to their material luxuries the next day. In both cases, solidarity has turned into spectacle and farce. Good journalism cannot ignore these critical observations.

Politics of revenge

One of the features that defines the EFF is its populism, threats and actual violence, physical disruptions and para-militarism, infused with rhetoric of revolution and bloodshed. The politics of revenge is at the base of EFF policies. People who own land, today, have to pay, probably with their blood, for their forebears’ occupation of the land of indigenous Africans. Malema is on the record for having said he was “not scared of blood… as long as that blood delivers what belongs to us [land] we are prepared to go to that extent”.

In a not so cryptic exhortation to his followers, Malema has told his them to prepare for war, starting with targeting the Minister of Public Enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, whom he referred to as a “dog”.

We must host the dog until the owner comes out, and when the owner comes out we will deal with him… There are no roses in a war,” Malema told his followers. “There is blood in a war… Let’s attack, fighters, and occupy every space in society, guard the revolution,”. And in response to the investigative work of journalist Pauli van Wyk, Malema told his followers to “Go for kill, fighters, hit hard…”

These exhortations cannot be ignored. They are distinct echoes of the way Mussolini (Hitler and Pol Pot, for that matter) rallied followers and fellow travellers to violence. We should probably not work the EFF-Italian Fascist template beyond recognition. Nevertheless, what does seem familiar in the rhetoric of Malema is type of “disproportionate revenge” that Pol Pot meted out in Cambodia.

Although there are some questions that may be asked of this cultural determinism, what has been described as “a cultural model of disproportionate revenge” combined with Marxist-Leninism (the EFF’s guiding ideology), provided a template for extreme violence during Pol Pot’s regime. Again, we should probably not get carried away, but have to remain vigilant — especially in disambiguating what Malema and the EFF say (and what they do).

Lies and lack of trust

Political leaders tend to be placed under greater scrutiny than do ordinary folk. At the best of times, political leaders base their careers on trust. The role of a journalists, among very many others, is to test the things political leaders say against what they do. The task is to expose contradictions and antinomies in the statements and claims of politicians. Evidence shows that Malema has mastered the art of flip-flopping. Daily Maverick previously wrote about EFF leaders’ habits of making statements and then later apologising. And just to be clear, there are qualitative differences between the work of a beat reporter and a columnist or an opinion-writer. So here is a test — how does one report, and then analyse, explain and describe the following statements attributed to Malema?

  • I’m sorry for not paying my taxes and insulting SARS.

  • I was targeted by the SARS rogue unit.

  • SARS targeted me because Zuma instructed SARS to do this.

  • SARS targeted me because I am a supporter of Zuma.

Now apply some logic and scrutiny to the following. About Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, Malema has been reported as having said, she is a rogue and captured by “Zuptas”. He then flip-flopped, saying, She is the best. And then there is the respect Malema paid to the country’s courts, which he followed up with later claims that the judiciary was “captured”.

At this point, it becomes clear that to disambiguate Malema’s rhetoric, to keep the EFF accountable and expose the dangers it poses to South Africa, takes time, effort and thorough inquiry. This is not obsessive, it is thorough journalism.

Malema and the EFF have presented themselves as the next leaders of society. A free press helps people make informed decisions. As beat reporters in, say, the health field or football, stay on a case and continue to do a better job through continuously writing, reporting and investigating their subjects, so do political writers and social commentators focus on political leaders. That’s not an obsession, it’s journalism. DM

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