I'm a journalist and a once-Afrikaans mlungu, and I'm feeling sorry for Julius Malema after the treatment he received this week. I can only imagine how much sympathy he has gained within the ANC at this crucial time, and how his death grip on the Youth League has grown tighter still. Unless that's the plan, in which case it's an ingenious one.
Look, it’s not like I know sePedi. Between some Sesotho forcibly taught in (ironically, an apartheid-era) school and the stuff you can’t help pick up in this job, I don’t quite manage to fake it, like any true mlungu. Until Thursday I knew nothing about the history or emotional loading of “makula”, and I have no idea whether it is typically used as a slur or not. But I can tell you this much: when Julius Malema used that word on Wednesday, his audience didn’t hear an insult, and I’m pretty damn sure he didn’t mean it to be derogatory.
When you are praising two communities, in this case Lenasia and Themb’elihle, as a model of integrated society that should be emulated, where different races live side-by-side, you don’t insult one of them. The context is positive.
Mostly, though, I’ve seen Malema when he means to insult and the man doesn’t pull his punches. He’s about as subtle as a brick to the face.
So it came as a bit of a surprise to open the papers on Wednesday morning and see the focus of some articles, and particularly the comments from readers on the online version of those articles. For once, I had some sympathy with the common complaint of being quoted out of context. And calling it hate speech? Really?
But fair enough, it turns out there are many people who feel makula simply crosses the line, and we can’t ignore that kind of sensitivity in South Africa. We had the conversation, the kind we need a great deal more of. The Youth League promised not to do it again, in a very uncharacteristic and mature manner that must have increased its capital among moderates and League supporters both. Malema emerged stronger.
Then AfriForum had to wade in, in an increasingly clownish manner. Apparently encouraging the illegal occupation of land is spreading sedition, and worthy of criminal charges. Probably not when it comes to the hippies of Occupy SA, or environmental protesters, or if the encouraging is done by anyone other than Malema. And then AfriForum Youth opined that apologising to aggrieved Indian people about “makula” shows racial bias, because the Youth League had offered no such apology about “dubulu i’bhunu”, the “shoot the boer” song.
I don’t have a lot of time for public figures who complain about victimisation, but the combination of a dubious allegation of racism, a very dodgy criminal complaint and a further absurd accusation of racism, all in the same day, made me wince in sympathy. I appreciate that Malema made his own bed by being such a shit-stirrer, and that he condemns himself with his history. Right here and right now, though, he’s being hard done by.
For me that means only a bigger helping of healthy scepticism the next time somebody cries wolf about his behaviour. But I’m not a member of the Youth League who is wavering on whether to join next week’s planned marches because I’m worried that’ll be interpreted as a vote of no confidence in Jacob Zuma. I’m not a member of the disciplinary committee who soon has to decide if Malema is a loose cannon or a feisty revolutionary who is being unfairly persecuted. Malema has emerged stronger among those who matter most in his life right now.
Now we like us a nice deep political analysis here at Daily Maverick, and the more Machiavellian the manoeuvring the better. So if we were to ignore the simplest answer and work from the assumption that AfriForum isn’t being blindly emotional, we could come up with a theory or two to explain its behaviour. A strong Malema means a strong and belligerent ANCYL, which is bad for the ANC proper, which in turn is good for AfriForum in the long run. Or, perhaps, Malema is such a divisive figure that the longer he sticks around, the more people will turn against even his moderate policies. Or, if you insist on plausibility, there is Adriaan Basson’s argument that Malema must be AfriForum’s best fundraiser, albeit indirectly, so strengthening him also strengthens AfriForum.
But let’s face it, this is a vendetta. We’ve all been there. Some unfortunate pisses you off, you take it personally, and the next thing you know you’re spending half your life stalking him, taking every opportunity to knock him down. For most of us, that kind of hatemance plays out online (typically in comment forums or Wikipedia discussion pages), and eventually you learn without too much damage done that the only winning move is not to play. Real trolls feed on the acknowledgement that comes with any response. If your quarry is strong you’re just wasting your time, if weak your victory is strictly Pyrrhic, exposing you as vengeful jerk
The worst possible outcome is that your target just ignores you – and you turn into the troll. The media isn’t quite there yet on Malema, but AfriForum is coming perilously close. While Malema, by contrast, looks more like a sober politician than he has in a long time. DM
De Wet is the deputy editor of The Daily Maverick. Not having the imagination to even try anything other than journalism (or any medium other than words), he has spent all his adult life writing about what everybody else is doing. He has written about technology and telecommunications, business, politics, the property market, unusual medical conditions and, for a brief interlude, movies. He has participated in the closing-down of one daily newspaper and two magazines, but implausibly claims that none of it was his fault.
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