Opinionista Ivo Vegter 25 March 2014

The case to elect Malema to Parliament

I’ve argued that “agrarian reform”, as advocated by Julius Malema’s new party, evokes the millions of victims of Mao Tse-Tung and Pol Pot. I’ve argued that it is regressive and dangerous even if Malema turns out to be a wise and kindly leader, instead of a totalitarian tyrant. But here’s why he should be in Parliament.

Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), promote an eclectic mix of policies. They want to nationalise large swathes of the “commanding heights of the economy”, as Lenin phrased it. They want to expropriate land and distribute it equally among the people, in a programme of agrarian reform.

They share a fervent desire with the white right wing to hang or castrate murderers and rapists, and have proposed a referendum on the death penalty. Perhaps the Red October crowd, who claim whites (often written with a capital W as a code to fellow supremacists) are the victims of genocide, ought to vote for Julius Malema. At least they’d get the death penalty back.

I’ve explained why Malema reminds me of Pol Pot, who caused the deaths of millions of Cambodians during his four-year rule, and why even if Malema isn’t a genocidal maniac, his policies would still be dangerous.

But there is a far more important reason to vote for Julius Malema.

Poverty has decreased substantially, a new black middle class has arisen, and services have been rolled out to millions since the end of Apartheid. An analysis of living standard measures shows that about five million people moved from low income to middle income brackets, and five million more moved from middle income to high income. As I’ve written before, we ought to give the ANC credit where it’s due. That said, not enough has been done. Our growth rate has been high enough to keep us out of poverty, but not high enough to absorb masses of the unemployed. As a consequence, many people have seen little improvement in the material conditions of their lives.

The people who follow Malema are understandably angry. They see corrupt fat cats rolling in money thanks to political patronage, while millions remain unemployed. That they don’t see the same flaws in a certain Julius Malema, his Ratanang Family Trust and the dubious tenders awarded to friends and allies who helped him build his mansion in Sandton, may be revealing of the alarming personality cult that has developed around the former Youth League leader, but it doesn’t make their broader perception any less valid.

Since Jacob Zuma took office, the official unemployment rate, which had for six years been on the decline from its peak of over 30% to 21%, has held steady around 25%. The ANC has egg all over its face because of the extraordinary amounts wasted on the president’s private residence. Tender corruption is rife, and while it takes considerable credulity to take Julius Malema seriously about tender corruption and conspicuous consumption, he is not wrong.

Land reform has been a slow and complex process, which has not been seen to be effective. As I wrote a fortnight ago, very little redistributed land ends up being productively used. There are good reasons for that, but it remains a visible symptom of a lack of progress in undoing the injustices of the past.

It doesn’t take a majority to be angry enough to spark a revolution. A significant minority can make the country ungovernable quite easily. Uprisings and revolts are started by groups who are poor and idle, and feel oppressed. The precondition for revolt is that enough people are hungry, have no hope, and do not feel that anyone listens to them. They don’t have to be right, nor does the revolution necessarily lead to better circumstances. Often enough, all it does is topple the privileged class, but that’s hardly a loss to people who have nothing.

Address any of these conditions: hunger, idleness and hope, and you can avert revolution.

This is why even free marketeers who oppose welfare-state policies ought to tolerate the social grant programme in South Africa. As a stop-gap, it has alleviated the worst poverty among the most vulnerable populations: children, the aged, and the disabled. A cynical view is that it is a bribe to keep a poor population pacified. A more generous view is that it is both necessary and the right thing to do, even if such welfare ought to be the province of private charity in an ideal society. We don’t live in an ideal society, yet.

Juvenal, in his Satires, described the superficial wants of a pliant population as “bread and circuses”. A ruler can remain in power, provided the people are fed and distracted. Hungry, unemployed masses are a danger to political stability.

You can calmly explain the errors of political economy that land invaders and violent revolutionaries commit, but it’s hard to argue rationally with pangas and petrol bombs.

If, however, Malema, who claims to speak for those who have been left behind, were to earn a seat in Parliament, this would provide a valuable release valve. No longer could they claim to be excluded, rejected, ignored and unheard. With a voice in Parliament, they could raise their grievances, and move to censure the excesses of the ruling party.

The entire point of the country’s transition to democracy is that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people. Not some of the people. Not most of the people. All of them.

Being represented in Parliament would subject Juju and his cronies to the moderating influence of being taken seriously, as rational political actors. Or, to put it a little more patronisingly, they’d be under adult supervision. No longer would he get away with his more radical, inflammatory and hateful utterances.

Better yet, if the Libertarian Party of South Africa also wins a seat or two, we would be treated to the intriguing idea of the Economic Freedom Fighters being debated about economic freedom. We’d hear what they’d have to say when they demand land, and the true advocates of freedom offer them not only land, but free and clear title to land on which they have hitherto been mere serfs of the state.

It is doubtful that Comrade Malema will be convinced, but the notion of electing him to Parliament is not about him. It is about the followers he represents, to whom he speaks, who hear those who challenge him, and who have legitimate grievances that ought to be given a voice in formal, peaceful politics.

Agrarian reform of the kind Malema advocates is a recipe for disaster, evoking the worst that politics has given the world in the last century. His policies would be dangerous even were he to resist the need to adopt totalitarian methods to achieve the redistribution he claims to want. But despite all that – or rather, because of all that – the least dangerous place for these policies would be in Parliament.

As Malema wisely said in 2011: “If you are not careful, you will be led by the masses.” The only thing more dangerous than an angry revolutionary in power is an angry revolutionary out of power. DM


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