Over the last months, we've been watching with amazement, bemusement and sometimes sheer disbelief as calls for the blanket ignoring of one Julius Malema multiply and gain more and more supporters. They are wrong, of course.
Being famous for being famous is not exactly a new phenomenon, but of late, the sheer profusion of tabloids, reality TV projects, daytime TV and cable channels dedicated entirely to the real and the imagined lives of “celebrities” have invented more and more, well, “celebrities”. Most of them have no intrinsic links to even relatively high IQs, education, meaningful careers or any other substance whatsoever.
The worlds of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan, any of participant in Survivor (SA included), Big Brother, or Keeping up with Kardashians, or even our own Khanyi Mbau, would not have existed without the media channels that created them. But here’s the crucial point: Without being celebrities-for-being-celebrities, they’d have been entirely harmless, living quiet and unassuming lives.
Not Julius Malema. Certainly not Julius Malema.
Malema is the elected leader of the youth wing of this country’s ruling party. As such, he wields considerable power and clout, that comes with the same job once held by Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. In theory, “the young lions”, as they’re sometimes called, are the future of the party, its incoming leaders and rank and file. And, because it’s reasonable to expect the ANC will be default winner of the national elections for quite a while still, the future leaders of the country currently occupy all sorts of positions within the Youth League. Are you starting to get the picture?
If Khanyi Mbau goes shopping on Saturday morning and buys a silver Aston Martin instead of a deep-red one, that could be news. But not necessarily. It falls to the respective editor to decide if there’ll be a visible uptick in his or her publication’s circulation or page impressions. If there’s no news in her buying an Aston, we can all get on with our daily routines completely untouched by it.
But if Julius Malema goes to Zimbabwe and meets Robert Mugabe and claims he represents, not only the Youth League, but also the ANC and the entire South Africa, as he hails the “glorious successes” of the Zanu-PF’s revolution, that touches all of us. Directly. Or are you so certain of our leadership’s righteousness and control of the situation that you’d prefer not to hear about Malema’s “triumphal” visit to the country that’s been destroyed by his new best friend?
When Malema-owned companies win hundreds of millions of rands worth of Limpopo tenders and then proceed to deliver a shoddy job that actually hurts the people he claims to serve, wouldn’t you want to know about it?
When Malema celebrates his birthday in the style of African presidents-for-life, when every sign and slogan indicates that he IS the PRESIDENT, but strangely stops short of qualifying that as “president of the YOUTH LEAGUE”, is that not important to you? Or would you rather not hear the speech in which he commits himself to a lifetime of poverty and serving the poor, and not see how he immediately demonstrates this commitment by drinking expensive French champagne? Do you really think his hypocrisy should not be called as it is? Or do you think Malema would become a better person if we kept quiet?
Or, when Malema dusts off the contentious song and tosses it out into the highly-combustible space that is race relations in South Africa, do you think we shouldn’t point out that all he is doing is diverting your attention from his own financial and tax affairs?
Remember, Khanyi Mbau’s shopping will not change your life. Malema’s misdeeds will.
If unchecked by the media, Julius Malema could go on eventually to become a real-life ruler of the ANC and South Africa. If left to do whatever he pleases, protected in anonymity by the media’s self-imposed silence, he could have arranged to win every tender imaginable, replace every ANC official he doesn’t like, nationalise this country’s mineral wealth and who knows what more. If he were to continue untouched, we could have SA’s close alliance with Zanu-PF and other exemplary friends that would probably make us think back with nostalgia on the times we shouted against Mbeki and hurled insults at Zuma. By that time though, no decent and self-respecting country would even touch South Africa.
And don’t think you would have media or free elections then either. The ANC can easily engineer a two-thirds majority to amend the Constitution. An inward-looking, nationalist ruling elite under Malema would not feel bound by the restraint its predecessors felt.
To prove it, we need to delve deeper into some issues of structure.
These days South Africa finds itself in a precipitous situation: The ANC-led government is simply not delivering. Yet there is almost no way they will be punished by the voters come the next national election. For all intents and purposes, South Africa is, effectively, a one-party state.
In any normal state, there is always an important balance among the party-in-power, a strong opposition (that could easily win the next time), an independent judiciary and a free, thriving media.
In South Africa, and despite the DA having made a great example of good governance in Western Cape, the opposition (as it is) is limited to firing angry missives, hoping they will be heard nationwide. Remember Cope’s futile attempt to push for a Parliamentary vote of no confidence in President Zuma? Remember the laughter and disbelief it attracted from the ANC caucus, as well as the genuine and unrestrained anger of Lindiwe Sisulu? The whole affair neatly illustrated the sheer, dramatic impotence of the SA opposition. For the time being, the ANC and its grip on government are quite safe from the opposition’s attempts to unseat them.
South Africa’s judiciary is still, by all accounts, independent and free. But there’s a major problem lurking there too: By default, the judiciary is a reactive force. However freely and independently, they can only judge what is brought before them. In the majority of big cases, the ones that could alter daily reality, or stop the wrongdoing, that job belongs to the National Prosecuting Authority, whose freshly-minted boss, Menzi Simelane, is on record stating that the judiciary “could sometimes” be subjugated by the executive. And, remember again, the ANC can change the Constitution with relative ease.
Which leaves us with the media as the one and only immediate and effective defender of reason and democracy in this country. Yes, we agree, the media in South Africa is far from perfect: We’re not exactly refined in our thinking and we often don’t understand what’s really driving events. Some of our “colleagues” wring their hands with delight at each new opportunity for inflammatory headlines to drive sales, or resort to publishing a kind of “cheque-book truth”. And yet, there are many intelligent and honest media outlets. We are all standing fearlessly in our effort to tell the unmitigated, unadulterated truth, to actually think about what we’re publishing and honestly strive to make sure this country has a future.
As long as there are people in the ruling circles that react when we ask, “Have you no shame?”, there’s hope the media can fulfil its role. As too many examples of breathtaking hypocrisy show, Julius Malema and the leadership of the Youth League have no shame – period. Yet there are people in the current ANC leadership who still listen, and care, and feel genuinely ashamed at Malema’s unchecked power-grab. So are millions of terribly concerned South Africans.
As long as there are still people who care, we need to shout the truth about Julius Malema, or anyone else. And we need to shout it now, loudly and as often as we can.
Brkic is the founder and editor of The Daily Maverick. He has edited magazines on business and politics, technology, and wildlife. He has also published fiction and non-fiction books, most of them in Serbian. Though he has never pretended to be a reporter, his wide knowledge of politics (especially in America), combined with his experiences in a disintegrating Yugoslavia, gives him an unusual outlook on events in South Africa. Despite the vowel-poor surname, he tells anyone who asks that he hails from Hyde Park, Johannesburg, having spent most of his adult life in South Africa.
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