Defend Truth


Good call, bad call, or better to venture no call at all?

Jill of all trades but really, mistress of none, Carien has of late been a political tourist chasing elections and summits in various parts of the world, especially in Africa. After spending her student days at political rallies in South Africa right through the country's first democratic elections in 1994, and after an extended working holiday in London, Carien started working for newspapers full-time in 2003. She's pretty much had her share of reporting on South African politics, attending gatherings and attracting trolls, but still finds herself attracted to it like a moth to a veld fire. Her ultimate ambition in life is to become a travelling chocolate writer of international fame.

That bladdie agent Brendan Boyle. All week I’ve been planning a column to call the outcome of the ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema’s political trial of the year, because that’s all everyone wants to know now. The prediction was to be disguised as a philosophical rant on how dangerous it is for hacks to make predictions.

But then Boyle ventured a well-thought through call before I could, disclaimer included. It’s difficult to differ from arguably one of the most experienced and well-respected political journalists in the country.

As the Daily Dispatch editor, based in East London, he also has the distance advantage.

In contrast, reporting from up close about Malema makes for a bit of a roller coaster ride, which doesn’t encourage eloquent thought.

Sitting through a Sunday church service, as I did, seeing warm-hearted Christians pray for the wayward boy can convert even heathens into Malema-worshippers. This fuzzy feeling was, however, undone only two days later as Malema’s spawn hurled bottles and half-bricks on a rather limp trajectory in the general direction of police and journalists.

In South African politics, things change faster than you can say “President Thabo Mbeki was the best leader we ever had”, and that’s perhaps why journalists have been especially coy about venturing predictions after the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference.

Most newspapers called it incorrectly by saying the constitutionally-incorrect Jacob Zuma could never win, and if he did, he could never become president because he faced corruption charges.

They were wrong.

Perhaps this shows that in South Africa, barrels of ink and rolls of newsprint are not nearly as mighty or as in-touch as the ANC conference delegate, else our predictions that Zuma could (and should) never become president, would have been true. In America, for instance, Fox News Channel’s early calling of the 2000 election of George Bush as president became a self-fulfilling prophecy, while in Britain, the tabloids can make or break a party – all power to the media.

Hot on the heels of Polokwane followed Mbeki’s recall (many were also surprised by this), and the birth of Cope (perhaps less surprising).

At the time I speculated, a first in my career, that Cope would die for lack of principles. An editor with more optimism about opposition politics cautioned against such forecasts. He said Cope had a chance. Maybe it did. My call being more or less right had more to do with luck than with political science.

Calling a political outcome is a gamble at best, but it’s not a blind one. You’re supposed to analyse past patterns (history tends to repeat itself – ask the ashes of the Zuma T-shirts on Beyers Naude Square) and present psychology, consider the consequences of each possible outcome, and read the signs of the times.

Other factors in the mix, rightly or wrongly (hacks are just people, you know), are the predictor’s political bias, their belief that politics is a pursuit of reason, and sometimes a wish list of what they want to see.

In the ANC, for instance, there are signs that the party’s patience with Malema has run thin: he’s been charged, ANC bigwigs didn’t agree to meet to devise a “political solution” before the disciplinary, Malema struggled to find a party heavyweight to represent him (as it is, he’s resorted to legal eagles, hiring two lawyers to fight his case) and the hearing hasn’t exactly gone his way so far. The committee didn’t agree to his request for some members to recuse themselves, and they didn’t readily agree to his request to drop the charges against him.

Then there is the unconvincing 1,000 to 2,000-strong crowd outside Luthuli House on Tuesday, the first day of Malema’s hearing. It was about 18,000 short of the respectably-sized masses the League was predicting. The crowd was a mixture of die-hard supporters from League branches, curious onlookers, bunking school kids and city centre bums.

The crowd was also out of control, and although Youth League leaders claimed they didn’t organise these kids, we know otherwise. If the League’s leaders had real power, these youths would have staged a more convincing show of militant anarchy, even a small revolution, or they would have behaved impeccably. Either way, Tuesday’s happenings outside Luthuli House have probably pushed the League’s brownie point score sheet a little bit more into the negative.

Malema had also not ventured to address a decent, packed, morale-boosting rally following the flopped North West public meeting on nationalisation shortly before he was charged.

This past weekend he spoke to an almost inappropriately girly dinner gathering of the League’s Young Women’s Assembly. And then he spoke to a captive African Methodist Episcopal congregation, at a service not more packed than usual.

On Tuesday, in speech to the crowd outside Luthuli House during a disciplinary hearing break, Malema promptly upgraded the media’s “bladdie agents” to the League’s “messengers”. We could smell the desperation through the wafts of beer, sweat and testosterone of the Beyers Naude Square “vigil-antes”.

Malema’s body language this week also became more defensive. A recording of his Monday press conference showed that, despite the words of bravado, vowing to heroically stick to his principles and pretending to be in charge, his normally steadfast dark eyes were wide open as if startled, and they were darting unsteadily. His posture was submissive, the folding of his arms when he spoke about having been unanimously re-elected in June, defiant.

My call? The ANC will suspend him until at least the 2014 elections, when Zuma can safely start a second term (or decline in favour of a better candidate), and when the party is well beyond its 2012 centenary celebrations. Boyle’s call of a three to six months suspension is too pessimistic – or perhaps too boringly well-considered. With all the embarassments about Malema’s shaky financial dealings also emerging now, the ANC might just have lost its appetite for Malema. Of course, he could appeal his suspension to the party’s national executive committee. But let’s call that outcome in another piece. DM


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