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The Gathering 2015: Malema takes centre stage


Stephen Grootes is the host of the Sunrise show on SAfm. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

On Thursday afternoon/evening, Julius Malema took centre stage at the Daily Maverick Gathering. It was always going to be a fitting end to a huge day. And of course, Julius being Julius, he lapped it up. Resplendent in red, beret-ed, and voluble, he gave us the benefit of his opinions on all things e-tolls, Marikana, his corruption trial, and of course, President Jacob Zuma. Along the way came a whole herd of new comments about the ANC. If only one could believe everything he said.

It says a lot about the pulling power of Julius Malema that if you want to keep a crowd in a hall an hour past the official closing time, he is the guy to do it. The hall was full when he started, and it was only as Ranjeni Munusamy said she was moving to her last question, that some people started to reach for the car keys, head out of Vodaworld, and at last get their MTN signal back.

Malema is one of those people that are both hard and easy to interview. You never have to worry about filling time; there will be no dead air with Malema. You just have to tee him up, and then let him do the rest. The real art is to try to actually get a word in, to knock him off what he wants to say. It is not easy. In fact, it has probably never been done. He’s not someone who really gets into tight corners in those situations. Rather he brushes past with a Mike Tyson-like punch straight to the ANC’s jaw.

Perhaps the most politically significant comment of the night was his promise that the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) would be prepared to work with other opposition parties after the local government elections. Always the sharp political strategist, he says he will not form coalitions with them, but “contractual relationships”. Those contracts, he says, will have measurable goals, and if the goals are not met, the contract will end.

It’s pretty clever stuff. Firstly, it removes the ANC’s claim that only it can govern. It also makes it harder for Luthuli House to say that a coalition of the EFF and the Democratic Alliance (DA) in, say, the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, won’t work. There is now a response to that claim. It also sends a message to the DA: we are open to doing business. And, more importantly, it removes any ideological obstacles. He can just say it’s about achieving certain goals, and not ideology.

The pressure on Danny Jordaan just doesn’t let up.

Malema of course has plenty to say about the ANC, and his once august role in that organisation. He has a new, novel defence for the claim that he is inconsistent for once saying that he would “kill for Zuma” and then calling him a “thief”. His defence is this: In the years leading up to Polokwane, Mbeki was trying to get at third term as ANC leader. This was about the abuse of the prosecution of Zuma, and the power that he wielded at the time. Then, according to Malema, Mbeki’s plan was to use the two-thirds majority the ANC had in Parliament at the time, to change the Constitution to allow him a third term as President.

Thus, when Malema was supporting Zuma, what he was really doing, was protecting the Constitution. And it was only later, that he realised that Zuma was no different, when Zuma said publicly as ANC leader that “nothing would change” economically speaking, and then, as his first official visit, “went to London to reassure capital and see the queen”, that he realised his mistake.

Well Julius, let’s look at the facts, shall we?

Malema’s comment about “killing for Zuma” was in 2008; Mbeki was still President, Zuma was the ANC leader. In 2011, after Zuma became president, South Africa voted in favour of the United Nations no-fly zone over Libya. Malema then referred to Mbeki as the “best ever leader the ANC ever produced”. Right, so Malema made the comments about Zuma to protect us all from Mbeki, and then said that Mbeki was the party’s best ever leader. Nowhere does he mention that in 2011, tensions were rising between Malema and Zuma, and that’s why Malema made the Mbeki comment.

And let’s not forget, while Malema was walking around making the world safe for democracy, he was doing it while wearing a T-shirt of Muammar Gaddafi. Who treated Libya as Mangosuthu Buthelezi has treated the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP)? As if they are one and the same.

Malema then went to claim that at one point he had met Zuma at his home in Joburg to discuss the possibility of having Fikile Mbalula replace Gwede Mantashe as ANC secretary general. Really? Where’s the proof? Of course, there isn’t any. And Mbalula’s ambition of being S-G was always part of Malema’s campaign as well. Needless to say, it didn’t go well. Malema tends to forget that when all of this was happening, which must have been around 2010, there was also an ANC National General Council, at which it became apparent Mbalula was not going to succeed. At that conference, both Zuma and Mantashe gave opening reports. To read one after the other, it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. They were written incredibly closely together. At the time, we suggested they were actually functioning as one political unit. It simply makes no sense for Zuma to have been suggesting this kind of proposal. It certainly would not have been in his interests. And his track record suggests that to act counter to those interests would be, for him, to carve a new path.

On his up-coming corruption trial, Malema was his bolshy, and bolshie, self. “They hate me so much, if they had a case, they would have jailed me within days,” he proclaimed. Again and again, “there is no case”. Right. Okay. We would expect that from someone who is pleading “not guilty”. But, Mr Malema, some of us are old enough to remember that you once claimed, repeatedly, that SARS was not investigating you in any way, and that they did not have a problem with you. We now know that an investigation was underway, that there had been correspondence between you and SARS. So we will wait and see what happens when your trial actually begins.

All the way through this Malema tour-de-force, the audience tittered, giggled, and sometimes laughed openly. He didn’t mind, he laughed himself, and smiled as he made political jokes. He had them eating out of his hand.

It’s a dynamic that has happened many times before; Malema is certainly an effective speaker. But there is, perhaps, also a disturbing dynamic at play, something that is difficult to explain. But all the way through his interview, through the laughing and the name-calling and the insulting of the ANC, I kept thinking of the current furore about the unspeakable whiteness of our literary festivals. A panel discussion about race that saw novelist Thando Mgqolozana announcing during a panel that he was not going to participate in future events, because he felt like an “anthropological subject” white people had come to see.

I’m not in a position to make a determination on this. But surely it is difficult to argue that these two dynamics, black authors feeling this way, and the radical blackpolitician creating this laughter around him, are not linked, or not similar, or at the least, do not resonate with each other.

Sure, there are some differences; the audience at The Gathering was not nearly as white as your average literary festival. But this is about more than race: it’s about class, too. And the audience at The Gathering was certainly urban, or what Zuma once called “clever blacks”. The way Malema is listened to, is laughed at and with, is certainly a strange, and sometimes disquieting dynamic.

There is no doubt that Malema has political gifts. He is one of the best speakers this country has ever produced. So was Bill Clinton one of the best speakers of his generation. And they both have a complicated relationship with what really happened. DM


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