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Observations from a Director’s Chair: Maimane and Malema. The Preacher versus the Demagogue


Ian von Memerty is a Zimbabwean-born South African entertainer, actor, singer, musician, writer, director and television presenter.

Julius Malema, out of his comfort zone sounds a political leader from before the fall of communism – a combination of Fidel Castro (circa 1973) and Leonid Brezhnev (in 1984). Mmusi Maimane, out of his comfort zone, in Parliament, tries to reproduce the high-octane faith of a party rally, and looks restless, unfocused, unconvincing and weak.

The dictionary defines a demagogue as someone who excites people by “appealing to their prejudices and fears”. A preacher (in the revivalist church tradition) exhorts greater faith and conviction through powerful and dynamic oratory. Malema is clearly a demagogue, and Maimane is a preacher by training and faith. And as communicators in their comfort zones this serves them well.

Anyone who has witnessed Maimane leading a Democratic Alliance rally will have seen one of the most electrifying speakers to ever emerge in South Africa. He is passionate, powerful, visionary, skilled at reading the audience, informed and knows how to shape his performance to a thrilling climax. Search YouTube his closing speech at end of the 2014 DA Gauteng campaign; it is superb.

All of us have watched Malema as he has grabbed the nation’s attention with perfectly timed public displays of intransigence, opposition, conviction, and complete confidence. There is never a hint of apology, there are short sharp exchanges that make great sound bites, whether ejecting a British journalist from a press conference with arrogant impunity to he chant, “pay Back the Money”. This is stuff that Donald Trump, the greatest demagogue of the year, would be proud of.

Now take them out of their “safety zones”. Maimane in Parliament tries to reproduce the adrenalised faith of a party rally, and instead just looks restless, unfocused and unconvincing. In a word, he looks “weak”. Search YouTube for any of his rarely viewed weekly Bokomasa “conversations with the nation”. What he is saying is smack on target for DA ideals and principles. How he says it, however, is like watching a “how-not-to-communicate” instruction video. The language is often verbose, complicated and impenetrable; the body language varies between defensive (raised chin, shifting shoulders), and desperate (pleading hands and leaning forward), and dull (facially blocked), and the vocal tone has an underlying question mark “are you getting this? Please I need you to get this”. In TV interviews he allows the interviewer to set the speed and style, and instead of speaking to his potential audience, he concentrates on the interviewer, and gets locked into argumentative defensiveness, instead of coming across as authoritatively in command.

Malema, out of his comfort zone is fascinating to watch simply because he is so boring. The launch of the EFF manifesto for 2014 was literally like trying to chew through cardboard, and that is just judging by the faces and reactions of the live audience at the event. We at home can at least watch, yawn and turn it off. When it comes to articulating policy he simply turns into an outdated leader from before the fall of communism – Castro circa 1973, or the Soviet Supreme Council circa 1984 under Leonid Brezhnev. Endless and meaningless paragraphs of political polemic that ignore failed (or in his case – untried) policies. It comes from a long tradition of hoping that the sheer weight of enough words will bring the utopian dream of communism into being. A wonderful dream, a disastrous reality.

So, notes from a director and communications coach. For Malema it is easy – stick to what you know. Use that instinct for the attention grabbing, short, sharp public display that has served you so well. The press and social media love it and you get the headlines you crave and need. If the content occasionally coincides with the truth, that is a plus.

For Maimane – the job is more difficult. He has said that the DA’s medium term goal is to win enough votes to remove the ANC from power in 2019 (probably in a coalition). That means he needs to appear Presidential, for the next 3½ years. If he is merely a great political actor, as his fiercest critic Gareth van Onselen states, then he has clear role models to copy – Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama (and the king of the interview Jacob Zuma). Always in control, never defensive, able to articulate vision in easy to digest bites that engender trust. If, however, he is the leader that his party believes, then he needs to wake up to his communication weaknesses. Stand with control, set the tempo, say less, but say it better. Quite simply he has to get out of his comfort zone, and move into statesmanship. After all that is what he is aiming to be, the leading statesman of this country. He needs to believe that he can do it, and then with consistent, calm language (vocal and body) convince another four million voters until they believe it too.

George Bernard Shaw said “Don’t expect your notes to be immediately implemented – it may take three or four repetitions.” That was in the theatre a century ago. In today’s fast and immediate world, no public figure has the luxury of that amount of time. DM


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