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What Julius got for Christmas

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

For a country that achieved the most astonishing transition to democracy, some South Africans show alarming political naïveté. How ironic that it is the ANC Youth League that emerged from #jujufriday looking the most mature.

Last week Friday saw another of those Twitter larks in a long tradition of humorous hashtag campaigns. ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema got his very own #jujufriday. This was a dangerously stupid idea, like hunting buffalo with a pea shooter is a stupid idea.

It gave Malema a golden opportunity to take the moral high ground, and demonstrate political maturity by refusing to rise to the bait. By the time of writing, the Youth League had not responded in any way to the provocation of the Twitterati. Full credit to them.

The #jujufriday trend on Twitter hit number two worldwide for a while, attracting global attention. It is hard to pinpoint who came up with the idea. The Mail & Guardian tapped a group profiled in Cosmopolitan magazine as the Twitter Kings, which includes a number of journalists, including Gareth Cliff, Reuben Goldberg, Aki Anastasiou and Kevin McCallum. Other reports likewise trace the idea to Cliff, who is a notorious gadfly to Malema.

Whoever started it, one can surely give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they merely intended to lampoon a man who has been begging for it in no uncertain terms.

After all, it was Malema and his spokesperson, Floyd Shivambu, who said they’d appeal to authorities to close Twitter down because of a few impersonators who were taking the mickey out of the ANC Youth League leader. There’s also much cause for satire in the over-the-top (and frequently inept) demagoguery of the enfants terrible of the ANC.

Many of the messages prompted by the #jujufriday trends were indeed harmless fun. Some satirised Malema’s lavish lifestyle, his apparent cluelessness about social media, his more outrageous political statements, or his defence of tenderpreneurialism.

Some were more petty and personal, taking cheap shots at the ANCYL’s shaky grasp of elementary English, or Malema’s infamous failure to master woodwork. Inevitably, a number of messages were downright racist.

And every single one of those tweets played right into Malema’s hands. The intent of the participants does not matter. He now has dozens of quotations he can use to prove to his followers how racist, disrespectful and downright bullying his online critics are. He can play the martyr, with all the vindication of a day’s worth of mean, petty and nasty commentary aimed at him.

That some of the tweets came from high-profile (and white) journalists must have made his day. He’ll hold this up as evidence that the media is an obstacle to transformation. That far from remaining above the political fray – reporting all the news without fear or favour, and penning thoughtful editorials against corruption and abuse of power – many journalists are no better than attack dogs for the political opposition. Actually, make that ankle-biters, to subvert a popular media nickname for the ANCYL.

Suggesting that the idea was politically stupid raised the ire of those who participated, however.

Furious denials of racism and protestations about the right to free speech met every attempt to suggest that this was an infantile campaign of schoolyard bullying, and that no good could possibly come of it. With considerable irony, black participants were defending the right to “protest” on Twitter and the value of doing so, against white critics who said the campaign was undignified and would achieve little.

Thing is, it doesn’t matter whether the participants were racist or not. It doesn’t matter whether the armchair “activism” was more or less vicious because the bullies could hide, cowardly, behind their computer screens.

The campaign provided political ammunition for a dangerous demagogue. It can only strengthen Malema’s hand among his followers, and might earn him a few new ones too. Why give power to a group that looks more and more like a bunch of brownshirt thugs every day? The political consequences of this kind of thoughtless heckling could be very serious indeed.

It is smart politics to take Malema seriously, and if you disagree with him, to calmly demonstrate the bankruptcy of his political and economic views. It is stupid politics to get petty and personal in “protest” against the views he expresses.

When the supposed intelligentsia has squandered its moral authority by indulging in witless insults, who will speak out against the rising militancy, the violent xenophobia, the strident entitlement, the jingoistic nationalism, the corrupt tenderpreneurialism, the expropriation of private property, the attacks on press freedom, the erosion of personal liberty, and all the other dangers that Malema’s rabble-rousing populism represents?

Who will tell the angry millions of disaffected youth that the #jujufriday campaign on Twitter wasn’t intended to be racist and that the participation of a number of black people proves this? Who will explain to them that the online elite doesn’t really hold them all in contempt? Who will convince them that this puerile outburst constitutes fair protest, protected as free speech by the constitution?

How will the mob respond? “Oh yes, we didn’t think of it that way. How silly of us.”

Come off it. Injured pride makes for dangerous anger. Think torches and pitchforks coming at your white picket fence, and knowing you deserve the mob’s fury because you were mean and thoughtless.

Sure, you have the right to say whatever you like. But just because you are entitled to open your mouth without thinking doesn’t make stupidity defensible. DM


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