The bearable lightness of debating Malema
- Tim Cohen
- 23 Oct 2009 (South Africa)
When the ANC Youth League phoned to ask me to participate in the debate, my head sort of spun. I had visions of what we used to do when National Party ministers came to address us at Wits; it involved lots of shouting and heckling, and if things went really well, a few chairs got tossed and the teargas would come out.
I also thought: am I really now Enemy Number One? Have I really become that? The middle-aged, middle-class, slightly portly white guy singled out as the apogee of everything awful in their eyes?
Like most writers, I’m a terrible public speaker; I like to fashion and recast. Speaking aloud, I lose track and stumble. And my opponent would be one of the best rabble rousers in the business. Was I nuts?
But then the youth league representative seemed so nice. I had previously been in a debate on Tim Modise’s talk show with league spokesman Floyd Shibangu, which had gone pretty well in the sense at least that we both got our points across. Planning Minister Trevor Manuel’s injunction that business people were “cowards” also rang through my brain. Personally I hate it when people don’t stand up for what they believe, and I do think South Africa suffers from a terrible lack of mutual honesty.
I was trapped. So I said yes.
I felt even more trapped walking into the Atlas Studios hall. Most of the hall were singing ANC songs; beautiful as always, but not exactly signifying a non-partisan crowd.
However, it wasn’t only the songs that rang in my ears, it was my brother Geoff’s text message: “You are really going to debate Malema ... and the upside for you is?”
As it happens, I could not have been more wrong. The league representatives were gracious to a fault. The crowd listened dutifully, and did not appear unduly offended by my stuttering, pro-capitalist message. They genuinely wanted to hear what I had to say – and then reject it. Thankfully, Old Mutual CEO Kuseni Dlamini was also there to bring an aspect of erudition and compromise to anti-nationalisation side of the debate, which I obviously could not.
But the true eye-opener for me was Malema himself. He was just masterful. He had that sense of poise and instant likability of a great speaker, combined with the feel for where the audience is that makes for the best kind of stand-up comic. Sure, he had a hometown audience; sure, he is by now a practiced public speaker; and the process was also skewed in his favour so the he both opened and ended the debate. Even so, I think in all honesty, if it were a boxing match, he won nine rounds out of ten.
His speech may have been filled with factual inaccuracies, misinterpretations and the conflation of facts and events. Yet his balance was spot on; he didn’t speak down nor up to his audience. He had that curious, instant oneness that some people just have with an audience.
All the great populists speakers of the past came instantly to mind, Huey Long in particular, perhaps also Eva Peron. Is the ANC transforming into a Peronist movement, I wondered; that confused mix of nationalistic capitalism and socialistic populism? It's possible.
As for Malema, I couldn’t help feeling slightly ashamed of my profession on his behalf. My only previous experience of him was the snippets I read in the press and that I had seen on television. In all of them, he’s typecast as “controversial” and “outspoken” – journalese sub-text for “wrong”.
I could sense reporters waiting for that one sentence which would satisfy the now firmly established public preconception. It’s the same way we used to report on AWB leader Eugene TerreBlanche, waiting with pens poised for that one nutty sentence which we could emblazon across the paper with the unwitting sub-text that he is awful and therefore the rest of us must be good.
Malema began his speech in a self-deprecating way, saying the poster advertising the meeting said he was going to give a “lecture” on privatisation. He reminded the audience of his own poor matric results, which drew a lovely ironic laugh. Then made a virtue out of his own ordinariness, pointing out his poor background.
The youth league’s argument on nationalisation is by now well known. Essentially, the argument is that if Botswana can have a 50% partnership with De Beers and still be regarded as a darling of the capitalist west, why can’t SA go the same route? Students from Botswana were paid R5,000 a month to go to university, he pointed out, evidently with some bitterness. Why can’t South Africans have the same benefit, which is financed in his mind at least, by the lucrative partnership with De Beers?
He deftly navigated the potential reefs he might have floundered on. He denied being a communist for example, or even a socialist. He added with a knowing smile, which drew cheers from the crowd, that there were communists that he liked. You were left in doubt, therefore, where he actually stands; a clever way of keeping in with the left wing but at the same time not totally alienating the right.
The race issue was the same; he kept making boldly racial statements about the ownership and management of mining companies, then immediately claiming that he was not being racist. He was simply pointing out the facts. Is it racist to say of mining company managers and owners: “They are all white men ... they don’t even let their wives through the door”? Probably not, but it’s pretty much in the middle of the grey area.
For all that, his prescription for nationalisation was actually quite tame. The Youth League is not, it seems, looking for wholesale nationalisation in the old style. Essentially it’s looking for a 60% shareholding in mining enterprises run at more or less arms length. He was prickly on the topic of money-hoovering public enterprises like SA Airways and Eskom, saying we should learn from our mistakes rather than be put off by them. In fact, he got on his high horse about the issue, accusing me of implicitly claiming they were run badly because they were run by black people, despite my explicit argument that it doesn’t matter who runs nationalised companies; they typically fail not because of who runs them but because of confused lines of accountability. That’s pretty much playing the race card.
One of my reasons for participating in the debate was to try and get a feel for whether the nationalisation call is contrived or whether it emanates from a genuine sense that it’s a viable strategy. In a sense, you could say its strategic; the ANC proper allows the Youth League license to call for nationalisation but at the same time denies that it is part of its programme. Doing both simultaneously provides the ANC with muscle in its negotiations with the industry, but avoids having to explain to foreign investors, and some of its own senior members, that it is grabbing their assets.
Yet I came away with a strong sense that the call is organic; grass-roots ANC members genuinely, rightly or wrongly, want nationalisation and are passionate about getting it. I’m pretty sure, now, that they will. Perhaps in some slightly watered down form, but it’s coming.
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