When former ANC Youth League President Julius Malema was grabbed by the scruff of the neck Monday and escorted out of the Wonderkop stadium, where he was to have addressed about 3,000 Marikana miners, many South Africans nodded in quiet approval.
“Finally, the young rabble-rouser was being put in his place,” seemed to be the sentiment from those who had had enough of the youngster’s bellicose behaviour since the deaths at Marikana on 16 August. While there is no doubt in that Malema is both a political opportunist and a pawn in the hands of far more sinister forces within the ANC’s factional leadership battle, there are some very serious questions about the meaning of barring him from addressing miners in Marikana.
We must ask whether the Julius-fatigue many South Africans experience justifies a clearly unlawful act by our police. We must consider what this means in the long run as the battle for power intensifies for our fledgling democracy.
Like him or not, Malema is an unavoidable character in South Africa’s body politic. His abrasive, undiplomatic manner has endeared him to many while rendering him an outlaw in the minds of others. He has emerged as the darling of all those who lean toward the politics of populism with his unique brand of confrontational verbosity. Many have argued that he is popular because he speaks for the poor and highlights issues which must be addressed if the ever-widening gaps of inequality are to be narrowed in a meaningful way.
At the same time, he lives an opulent lifestyle and the way he has managed to amass considerable wealth has made him a questionable character to others. There have been investigations of his business dealings; there are questions about how he was able to afford a R3-million home in one of the most expensive suburbs in South Africa, break it down and rebuild it at a price tag of R16-million. All while he was taking a meagre salary of R25,000 a month as head of the ANC Youth League. His Ratanag Family Trust and his interest in dodgy companies such as ON-Point in Limpopo Province, where widespread corruption and looting of state coffers is suspected, are under investigation by various state agencies, including the Hawks, SARS and the Public Protector. Coupled with this, his irretrievably damaged relationship with his one-time mentor and friend, President Jacob Zuma, his open defiance and public slander of the president and his leadership has undoubtedly earned him very powerful enemies.
He has challenged the captains of industry, who he refers to as “white capitalist monopoly”. He’s called for the nationalisation of mines and banks and the expropriation of white-owned farms without compensation. This has sent shockwaves of panic among the indebted middle classes, as the prospect of a Zimbabwe-like land grab and indigenisation process seems to be more than a political notion in South Africa.
Malema has said these things while enjoying the comforts of an upper middle-class lifestyle, replete with considerable property portfolio and very shrewd capitalist tendencies. He bought a farm in Limpopo last year from a white farm owner for almost R1-million, cash (so much for expropriation without compensation).
His relationship with labour is no less complex.
He has challenged trade unions, particularly the National Union of Mine Workers (NUM), the largest trade union in the most important industry in South Africa, enraging its leadership with his ridicule and insults and going as far as showing them the middle finger. As angry as this has made union leadership, it has endeared him to the workers at Marikana, a strategically important constituency in the trade union’s balance of power. Meanwhile, both his domestic helper and gardener were reported to be complaining about not being paid for services rendered a few months ago.
Such is the dichotomy of the persona of Julius Malema, who expertly manipulates the contradictions of society for his political survival. His hypocrisy is crass, unashamed, engaging and intriguing. Some have called him a malignant narcissist, lacking principled conviction, driven only by a powerful self-serving impulse. He’s seen as a man who has identified a culture of low expectations in a society grappling with its own identity while he mercilessly ravages it.
There is no doubt that Malema is a dangerously unpredictable individual with great capacity for causing untold instability in our country. His utterances at the various platforms for legitimately disgruntled workers in the last few weeks have been irresponsible, with the potential at best of inciting violence. Clearly he has seen this as a way to resuscitate his ailing political career and somehow militate against his impending arrest for financial shenanigans by whipping up populist sentiments.
Yet, as repulsive as he may be to many, Malema is a citizen of the Republic of South Africa, a country with a constitution and laws whose meaning and values are found in their ability to protect even the most wretched and undesirable citizens. That is both the burden and beauty of freedom. Technical arguments may be advanced about the purpose of the meeting he was barred from entering at Marikana. “It was a closed meeting between employer and employee,” one could argue. “No outsiders were allowed to be part of this critical meeting, even the media was barred from entering.”
Furthermore, his track record shows he has been irresponsible when he has been allowed to speak. Had he addressed the miners, he likely would have created a situation where the settlement ending the strike on Tuesday would have not been reached. And it is the duty of peace officers to not only stop incidents of unrest, but to prevent them before they occur. All salient and valid arguments.
Let not the fatigue created by the antics of a desperate politician blind us to the responsibility we have to the rule of law and the deepening of democracy. While hypocrisy and the potential for causing chaos are morally reprehensible, they are not in themselves illegal. Law enforcement agencies should only act in situations where the law is broken or likely to be broken, not because we are tired of the tests of a belligerent youth. As irritating and unorthodox as his ways are, Malema forces us to look at our understanding, appreciation and commitment to the ideals of democracy and freedom. The actions of the police should never be seen to be based on sentiment or preference.
The police did not have to bar him from the meeting. They should have told him even before he arrived of his “unwelcome” status and offered him the choice to either contravene those considerations and bear the consequences or to stay away. The police knew he was coming, they could have avoided the drama and the impression that they were looking for a confrontation with Juju and his crew in order to signal who is in control. In the end, all this did was further fuel speculation of an orchestrated plot for the possible elimination of Juju. This was childish and irresponsible for a service charged with the huge job of maintaining law and order in a situation as volatile as Marikana.
Our police need to understand the dynamics of a democratic society and how law-enforcement should operate in that context and abandon the “skop en donner” tendencies so deeply embedded in their psyche. It makes them look stupid. DM