Nazi! Fascist! Racist! Yes, yes, yes. It’s easy to imagine we can counter Malema’s bumper-sticker prejudice with some bumper-sticker prejudice of our own. However, this approach completely ignores the conditions that germinated this Malema, and will most assuredly germinate another one after this one goes.
Political nuance is difficult to comprehend. I understand that. This means that most people won’t get the point I’m about to make. Fair enough. It’s still an important point to make, so if you’d put your pitchforks away for four minutes and hear me out…
There are two different types of Malemas. There’s the one I support – bet you didn’t expect that from a Daily Maverick columnist – and then there’s the one we all need to shout down, with every tool at our disposal, whenever he rears his alarmingly shiny head.
There’s the dangerous Malema who exhibited frighteningly Third-Reich-like tendencies in the run-up to local elections, when he said that “all whites are criminals”. And then also told a massive crowd at an FNB stadium political rally that “the DA is for whites, it is not for you”. This is the Malema whose snout is so deep in his own Kool-Aid, he actually believes himself. This is the scary, chest-thumping public figure that is a brown shirt away from 1930s Germany. This is the man who has taken apartheid-era politics, turned them inside out and unleashed them as best he could on an increasingly frightened South African minority. The exact type of person that the Constitution was designed to quash forever.
I don’t mean to trivialise the real danger a character like Malema poses to South Africa’s young democracy. But then again, our democracy is much, much stronger than the likes of Malema, and we’ve suffered much worse as a country. But that’s not the point I’m trying to make.
My point is that the Malemas of this world aren’t created out of thin air. They are a symptom of the country that brings them forth. Look at it this way – The Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (once again I prove Godwin’s Law right) would never have existed without the largesse of Wilhelm II of Prussia and the Weimar Republic that came after imperial Germany’s defeat in World War I.
In the same way, Malema springs out of a great tension between the two South Africas (the one which watches “Carte Blanche” every Sunday night and the one that goes to bed cold and hungry) and the unfulfilled promises of 1994. He recognises that the struggle between the previously disadvantaged South Africa and the one that continues to clutch very tightly to its assets cannot be sustained for very long. This is the Malema whose speech resonates with every poor and disaffected South Africans who can never rise out of their circumstances because of apartheid and also because of the new regime’s ineptitude in solving our social crises.
And here’s the funny bit. Zwelinzima Vavi, the secretary-general of Cosatu and an avowed communist who is often cast as a middle-class hero because he is willing and able to stand up to the largesse of the ANC, sings from the same hymn sheet as Malema. And yet he doesn’t get smeared as a Nazi in the media. Why not? Why are we afraid of Malema and not of Vavi? Is it because he hasn’t pissed on white people in as many words? What exactly are we to understand from his grim augury that predicts that “the poor… will one day march into the suburbs to demand the same living standards, and no wall will be high enough to stop them”? Tell me, if you remove the venomous hatred of affluent white people from Malema, what difference is there between his position and Vavi’s?
Here I am not beating about the bush: Malema, as hateful as he might be to democrats, was born of real problems in South Africa that we cannot wish away with pompous columns and legal action. This country needs to address structural inequality in the same way that it was imposed – through political action. Call me a communist too if you wish, but South Africa does need direct intervention from the government, from business and everyone else who has a say, to eradicate the poverty that affects most who call this land home.
Will we continue to smirk behind our high walls, big dogs and armed security when Vavi and Malema’s words come true? DM
Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.
"I do not understand how holding a placard to protest against gender-based violence would be interpreted as insulting the modesty of a woman." ~ Beatrice Mateyo