Julius Malema & The Age of Cowardly Leadership

Former US President Donald J. Trump. (Photo: EPA-EFE/MICHAEL REYNOLDS) | Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema. (Photo: Gallo Images/Fani Mahuntsi) | Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (Photo: EPA-EFE/JoÈdson Alves)

True leaders never let their personal goals and ambitions cost the lives of the people who trust them with leadership.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

His name was Ernest, and he is my lifelong hero. He arrived on the barren and beautiful island of South Georgia on 4 January 1922, at the helm of his expedition that was bound for Antarctica. The following night he suffered a massive heart attack. He died in the morning, only 47 years old. He was buried in South Georgia, an island that was so crucial in his life. His grave, unlike all others on the island, looks straight into Antarctica. His body may have been committed to the frozen paradise in the middle of the South Atlantic, but his soul has remained immortal.

Ernest Shackleton’s grave at South Georgia (Photo courtesy of Povl Abrahamsen via Flickr)

His full name was Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton and he was one of three great Antarctic explorers of the early 20th century, the other two being Roald Amundsen and Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Shackleton never achieved any of the feats he attempted: he never reached the South Pole and had to abandon the trek across Antarctica before it even started. And yet, to me, he was the greatest of them all, the type of leader humanity needs in moments of great deprivation and turmoil.

Shackleton started as Scott’s companion in the unsuccessful 1901-1904 Discovery expedition. He returned to Antarctica on his own Nimrod expedition (1907-1909). He and his three crew members came so close (about 180km) to the South Pole they could smell success. But Shackleton knew that at least some of them would die should they push forward, so he decided to turn back and forgo immortality so his crew could live.

Shackleton would have been a great hero even if he simply returned to England and lived on speeches and presentations. But what transformed a hero into a giant of humanity was the unbelievable suffering he and his crew survived in his 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which shifted human and spiritual endurance to levels never seen before.

His plan was for his team to be the first to walk across Antarctica, but their ship, Endurance, got stopped and then crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea on 21 November 1915.

Endurance was crushed by ice on 21 November 1915 (Photo Library of Congress)

They were forced to evacuate their camp and to sail almost 600km in three lifeboats to Elephant Island, one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. There they spent two Antarctic winters under the most horrifying conditions possible, huddling under the overturned lifeboats. Just before the second winter, and fully understanding the cost of not doing anything, Shackleton gave the order to execute perhaps the most daring rescue attempt in the history of humankind. The least damaged of the 20-foot lifeboats was strengthened for the trip to South Georgia, 1,300km away, where they knew there was a whaling station that could help.

Shackleton embarks for South Georgia, 24 April 1916 (Photo US LIbrary of Congress)

But Shackleton was not a leader who would not himself lead. On 24 April 1916, he set sail with a crew of five; it took them 14 days of sailing through the world’s roughest seas to reach South Georgia. There was one small problem – they landed on the wrong side of the island. Shackleton didn’t dare reach the whaling station by sea, because the wild currents and insane waves would have almost certainly crushed their battered lifeboat. So he decided to cross South Georgia by land, a feat never before attempted and not repeated until long after.

Guess who was leading this impossible attempt again? A true leader, Shackleton took two of his strongest crew and completed a 50km trek across the dangerous mountainous terrain in just 36 hours, equipped only with a piece of rope. You can imagine the Norwegian whalers’ shock when they saw three dishevelled Englishmen stumble into their station – from the wrong side of the island. Shackleton immediately set out to save his crew on the other side of South Georgia and from Elephant Island, which he succeeded in doing on his fourth attempt, because of rough seas, on 20 August 1916.

And here comes a truly shocking detail: after two Antarctic winters, only one of the crew lost his toes because of frostbite. To me, that is the ultimate proof of Shackleton’s greatness. He led indeed, but he led with humanity as the ultimate moral compass. Nothing was more important than his crew and their wellbeing.

True leaders never let their personal goals and ambitions cost the lives of the people who trust them with leadership.

Compare that with some of the “leaders” of today. Donald Trump happily thrust the US into a once-in-a-century upheaval in order to stay out of jail, and that after a year of mismanaging the pandemic, lest it affects his ability to campaign in the 2020 elections. Leading from the back, he pushed for the 6 January upheaval, only, true to his cowardly character, to claim he had nothing to do with it.

Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, insane as he is, is perfectly okay with turning Brazil into a hot mess, with the Covid-19 death toll breaching 500,000 while he’s busy radicalising the country in order to remain in power. All while safely ensconced in his presidential palace.

There is just too much cowardly leadership in the world right now, and humanity is paying the price.

There is massive competition for the title, what with Jacob Zuma, Ace Magashule, Dr Iqbal Survé, but South Africa’s crown for cowardly leadership has to go to one Julius Malema and his sidekick, Floyd Shivambu.

Hypocrisy is one of the most distinguishing signs of cowardly leadership and the EFF leaders shine too brightly there. Preaching anti-corruption while being corrupt themselves is already a defining characteristic. But what truly lifts them above everyone else is the ease with which they send their armies of blind supporters to bully and intimidate whoever Malema/Shivambu need to break/scare/extort. All of it while they themselves are sitting safely behind, just cruising. Their foot soldiers are sometimes arrested and left to their own devices.

In a piece in 2018, I wrote:

“It takes extraordinary cowardice to verbally attack female journalists just for doing their job in a society that is plagued with violence against women. That cowardice, however, is taken to a Trumpian level when the suppression of free media, racism and violence against women is wrapped in one continuous vicious attack that has just enough legal caveat – should something horrible happen to the targets of their attack – to claim innocence and throw one’s own supporters under the legal bus instead.”

Three years later, the only thing that has changed is that their supporters are now also exposing themselves to the risk of contracting Covid-19 to fight the Sahpra battle neither they, nor their leaders, know anything about.

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) members chant and hold plackards as they march to the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) offices in Pretoria, on June 25, 2021. (Photo by Phill Magakoe / AFP)

Like so many times in history, they are just fodder, a rounding error in someone’s sick ambition game.

Shackleton, the hero, the leader, was in so many ways unique and might not come again soon. Today’s “leaders” – Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Zuma, Magashule, Malema – don’t know what true leadership is and will never know. Let’s face it, it is difficult to see anything through the haze of smoke, mirrors and con artistry that is today’s world. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Coen Gous says:

    Interesting article Branko. But from a miserable West Coast, this article makes one even more miserable, following events that played out in South Africa on Friday. And what makes it even more miserable, is the knowledge that tonight I can’t even enjoy a glass of Chardonnay to warm the insides, after I forgot, once again, to stock up. None of the 3 South African’s mentioned are current leaders of the country by any stretch of the imagination, purely wannabees. Surve and Magashule have both been identified as corrupt, and likely to face jail time at some stage. So should Malema, but after Friday I have serious doubts. The march on Friday by the EFF had only one organiser, Malema. The police claim they will charge the organiser(s), but will they charge Malema? Off course not, they are s..t scared of him. Shivambu is really only a puppy of Malema, and so are other EFF leaders. Malema IS the EFF. The EFF IS Malema. Without Malema there IS no EFF. Should the EFF start to loose voters, Malema will jump ship, likely to the ANC. And then, he will rise to the occasion, and become the leader of the ANC, and by definition, the country. Off course he has no idea what leadership is. But that does not matter to him or his supporters

    • gorgee beattie says:

      Hello Coen, Well said.
      If Malema is not charged over Fridays farce then there is little or no chance of him and the other lowlives ever being held to account. As long as these odious individuals are allowed to run free there is no hope of RSA being turned around for the better.

  • John Buchan says:


  • George King says:

    Excellent analysis.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Excellent, Branko, well done. Beggars belief that Malema hasn’t yet been charged. There are exemplary political leaders, mostly women, who do make a difference but they’re not the kind of narcissistic lot that Africa provokes.

    • John Bestwick says:

      Indeed. I will not be nominating Dlamini,Mokonyane,D-Zuma,Muthambi,Nqakula,Stella,Mbete,Sisulu,Zulu,Gomba,Gumede or the dead ones like Dr.Beetroot for any sort of humanitarian recognition. The awesome ANC women of the past like Albertina,Charlotte etc failed to pass on a legacy of kindness and togetherness totally lacking in today’s ANC. Come to think of it i can’t even name an EFF woman of character.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Great read – thank you.
    I have only one question…”who paid for the red t shirts, caps and printed posters in the EFF March? Follow the money and you will reach the source of this rottenness….whatever or whoever the source is, needs to be strongly prosecuted and punished. Malema and Shivambu are merely ridiculous, uneducated pawns in a much more sinister plot to destabilize SA in my opinion . They’re just too stupid to realize this.

    • Desmond McLeod says:

      Agree – whoever is trying to distribute the the two vaccines is/are probably funding all and has promised JM huge commissions “for the revolution”

  • Charles Parr says:

    Some clever person at some stage said something like ‘evil prevails when good people fail to act’. Let’s change that to ‘societies fail when leadership fails and law and order breaks down’.

    A great article and great comments above.

    • John Bestwick says:

      Malema is a clown who thinks a microphone and a very tenuous command of English gives him power and glory. He would probably be much better off as an African DJ and i wish there was some way to ban this colonial throwback from using our language for his “kak praat”.Note that nothing he says in Pedi is ever quoted.

  • Petru Viljoen says:

    Did I read correctly? The EFF leaders did not participate in the march on the 25th?

  • Stef Viljoen Viljoen says:

    I like this article! Some good points made. I would only add that the followers are also to some extent to blame for the situation. As a for instance….. I have seen SO many of DM’s readers comment that they are not interested in reports about what Malema and the EFF are up to. Yet, at the same time he has his classroom full of followers that are always cheering him on. They MUST be unable to see through his façade.

    • John Bestwick says:

      It,s their employment! Even though they required to pay a levy from their wages they are COMMANDED to appear at rallies etc in their districts. Nazi style Commies😂😂😂

  • Charles Parr says:

    I don’t think so. It seemed to be more of a generalisation about these cowards not leading front the front in any march that they organise.

  • Marcel Anceaux says:

    Interesting article, about the old antarctic explorers.
    People like Malema, narcissists with their never ending ASB, attention seeking behaviour, should just be ignored by the media and the general public.
    The fact that SAPS was too afraid to tackle, breakup this mass EFF rally recently, much in the same way they often don’t dare to stand up to to the taxi mafia, apparently many police officers own taxis, just proves how fast SA is sliding down into a BR, a banana republic.
    Julius will get away with this one as usual, and the dumb media will continue to give him undeserved attention and a platform.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    As one response indicated, this is a particularly rabid ‘masculinity’ project ! Around the world, it shows its ugly face, irrespective of culture ! Yet … interestingly as Branco’s example indicates, it does not have to be that way!

  • Ian Wylde Wylde says:

    Great article thank you !

  • John Bestwick says:

    Great history lesson. Discard race,language,history,tradition etc etc and you would still score Zero if you even for one minute thought of Julius Malema as a leader. Even his “own people” have seen the light. 10.2% is all he will ever achieve and perhaps a paragraph in history. A bully,liar,fraud and thief are not characteristics of leaders. He never appears where he might get the snotklap he deserves. Like Cele he is always an after the event TV chaser. An idiot and a total fool.

  • Monique Martinez says:

    Bravo ! Calling a spade a spade …

  • C Morrison says:


  • Wayne Harris says:

    Thanks for a good read, Branko. As has been mentioned by some commentators below, I believe the followers are the real problem. Like with Hitler, when people have the herd mentality & follow their so called “leader” like lemmings over the cliff, it impacts the ordinary law abiding citizens of our country as a whole.
    When we speak of courage, I admire you for writing this piece as I guess you know that the gutless, little piece of slime will go after you in some way.
    Keep up the good work!

  • john thompson says:

    /Users/bob/Desktop/Shackleton Men Wanted Poster copy.pdf

    Great article. We walked/climbed part of the Shackleton walk a few years ago. Not for sissies and we had state of the gear, not seal skins etc.

  • Joseph Maclennan says:

    Shackleton was a remarkable leader, who kept his men motivated and alive under incredibly challenging conditions. They were mostly in and on the sea ice, though, not on Elephant Island. Their ship, the Endurance, trapped in the pack ice, was abandoned only when it became clear that she was doomed. Shackleton and his team then camped for months on the pack ice, drifting slowly northward with the current. When the ice started to break up, they made the relatively short voyage to Elephant Island in the three lifeboats they had with them. About a fortnight later, Shackleton and a small crew set off on their harrowing, 1500 km voyage to South Georgia Island. He managed to return to rescue those left behind about three months later. Perhaps the most enduring testament to Shackleton came from Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who wrote “For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott; for a Winter Journey, Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen: and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time.”

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

[%% img-description %%]

The Spy Bill: An autocratic roadmap to State Capture 2.0

Join Heidi Swart in conversation with Anton Harber and Marianne Merten as they discuss a concerning push to pass a controversial “Spy Bill” into law by May 2024. Tues 5 Dec at 12pm, live, online and free of charge.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.8% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.2% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.2% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.2%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options