Opinionista J Brooks Spector 30 October 2011

Machiavelli, Mao, Malema

With the vibrations of Julius Malema's march to Pretoria still bouncing in our collective ear, we need to better understand where it comes from and what are its historical precedents. And when we do, an interesting picture appears, one of the troubled politician swimming across the mighty Chinese river.

Five hundred years ago, Nicolò Machiavelli, the unblinking student of political behaviour had famously written, “Fortune being changeful and mankind steadfast in their ways, so long as the two are in agreement men are successful, but unsuccessful when they fall out. For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her.”

A better definition of Julius Malema’s adventures this past week might be hard to find. And just to make sure his meaning had not been misunderstood, he added, “it is much more secure to be feared than to be loved”. Taken together with his admonition about fortune, Machiavelli’s operational guidelines can pretty much be shrink-wrapped to read: audacitiy and the encouragement of fear, especially given the political threats he is now facing within his party.

Julius Malema, even if he wasn’t conversant with these examples, was following in the metaphorical footsteps of Hernando Cortez, the sixteenth century conqueror of Aztec Mexico, and Alexander the Great. Both conquerors had burnt their boats to encourage their armies onward to what had then become their only alternative. And there is yet another bit of advice Malema seems to have heeded as well, but more on that in a moment.

To have read Malema’s comment, as reported in the Mail and Guardian at the Chamber of Mines, makes a reach straight back to Machiavelli: “When chamber chief executive Bheki Sibiya accepted the league’s memorandum, Malema said communities where mining was taking place should benefit. ‘You have only taken disease to our communities, not riches,’ he said. The league did not want to spill blood, he said, adding half-jokingly: ‘But to avoid blood spilled on the floor is to respond to these demands’.  ”

From the coverage in the South African media and in conversations with friends and co-workers, from mid-week onward, Julius Malema’s march held national attention with its implicit threat of public violence as well as national applause for successfully forestalling any. This took place despite the pending possibility of a melt-down of the European financial system, unprecedented decisiveness on the part of President Zuma in dealing with corruption, and the rise and rise of a young, articulate, female, African leader within the DA. And there were also stories like America’s nearly endless process of selecting its next president, Occupy Wall Street movement and its transnational counterparts, the demise of Gaddafi, and those unprecedented free elections in Tunisia to compete for coverage. The march, regardless of whether there were 2,000, 5,000 or 100,000 participants, captured the national news cycle and bent the texture of the national discourse in the direction of its headline issues.

Julius Malema, through both the march and the lead-up to it, demonstrated an understanding that politics comprises both real actions – and intangible ideas – an idea that owes inspiration to Plato, of course. An image can become further enhanced when it taps into conscious and subliminal associations. In calling for this march to Pretoria, Malema was drawing upon a knowledge, no matter how sketchy, of the historic women’s march on the Union Buildings over the extension of the pass laws to African women, the title of that catchy song from the second South African War, and perhaps with associations to Martin Luther King’s march on Washington – and perhaps even Louis Farakhan’s “Million Man March” in 1995.

And then, too, there were possible ties of solidarity, for those who watch TV news or read newspapers, with the burgeoning worldwide phenomenon of the Occupy Wall Street and the 99% movements. Making people feel at one with other struggles gives transcendent meaning to shared sacrifice – and blisters and aching bones and muscles. Here again, Malema reached back to make common cause with those antecedents, giving his followers the sense they were part of something larger and with richer historical overtones – even if they didn’t march but simply felt themselves in solidarity with the marchers. The march, after all, had even elicited an opportunistic banner hung across Chamber of Mines headquarters, expressing agreement with the need for jobs for all.

And even if he didn’t vocalise it, Malema has been tapping into a bigger worldwide sense of things. The Washington Post’s EJ Dionne, for example, speaks to how Barack Obama is now reaching for something of the same pitch, albeit with a very different rhetorical and policy flavour. Dionne says  “…efforts [by Republican politicians] to taint Occupy Wall Street as nothing more than a bunch of latter-day hippie radicals haven’t worked…. Obama, by sharpening his arguments about what’s fair and what’s unfair, has finally stopped his slide in the polls….”

But, of course, Julius Malema also draws upon another tradition and has drawn inspiration – even if inadvertently and third-hand – from the lessons of Mao Zedong’s life. No, not the Long March or those public readings of the Little Red Book, but, rather, from his famous 1966 swim in the Yangtze River. Apparently gripped by a crisis of confidence after the horrendous collapse of the Great Leap Forward, he had gone into near isolation for a year. But, emerging re-energised, at the age of 73, he plunged into the wide Yangtze River to swim across it as a demonstration of his renewed physical strength – and his new strength of purpose. Or so we are told. Of course, historically, the Yangtze has been symbolically almost as important to China as the Nile is to Egypt, and the river had been the subject of Mao’s own poetry, as with his 1956 poem, “Swimming”:

Great plans are afoot:
A bridge will fly to span the north and south,
Turning a deep chasm into a thoroughfare,
Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west
To hold back Wushan’s clouds and rain;
Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges
The mountain goddess if she is still there
Will marvel at a world so changed.

For Mao, to carry out a successful swim across the Yangtze became the symbolic announcement of the Cultural Revolution and a new wave of revolutionary ardour. Together with 5,000 young swimmers in the annual race across the river at the city of Wuhan, Mao was reported to have swum some 15km in only 65 minutes. Pictures of Mao’s head bobbing just above the water, surrounded by swimmers carrying huge banners celebrating his achievement were seen throughout China and around the world. The message was clear: Mao was a force to be reckoned with – yet again. As the White House’s resident China specialist during the Nixon and Ford’s administrations, Richard Solomon recalled the meaning of this swim for Time

“Yet for the old man of the revolution, the swim was a call to China’s younger generation to dive into a political struggle against counterrevolutionary party bureaucrats. If the aging chairman could conquer the mighty Yangtze, surely the nation’s youth could brave the winds and waves of a political storm and overthrow Mao’s opponents.  For Mao, the event appeared to be a symbolic re-enactment of his own teenage rebellion against a brutal father, whom he had challenged by pursuing physical activities and learning to swim — in contravention of Confucian notions of physical reserve.”

Or, as Mao himself had written in the Little Red Book, “We must know how to use cadres well. In the final analysis, leadership involves two main responsibilities: to work out ideas, and to use cadres well…. To put the ideas into practice, we must weld the cadres together and encourage them to go into action; this comes into the category of ‘using the cadres well’.”

Marching to Pretoria version 2011 is textbook Machiavelli merged with Mao. One can only wonder what will happen when – or if – Julius Malema assimilates the lessons of the Arab Spring and merges his mass action efforts with the social media connectivity of the electronic herd. Yes, of course the unemployed, the homeless and the poverty-stricken don’t have much Internet access yet in South Africa, but the country does have more cell phones than there are citizens and every one of them can send multiple SMSes. And if Malema ultimately proves unable to bring this technology into synchronicity with his pitch of jobs for all, someone else may.

And as an old message maker, I’d offer one bit of unsolicited advice to the head of the ANCYL: Drop the gobbledygook about nationalisation, the seizure of farm land without court-assessed compensation and the elimination of purchaser parity pricing. Boil the message down to just one word: jobs – but before you’re frog-marched out of your party. Who in this country would disagree with that message? There was another slogan with three words – “bread, peace, land” – and it brought down a government, after all. But maybe the Machiavellian and Maoist discipline needed for such efforts is too steep a hill for Malema to climb. Certainly some people – in the government, in business, and in his party – hope that this will be true. DM

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"Go down this set of stairs and then just run - run as fast as you can." ~ Lt David Brink, 9/11

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