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Malema vs Zuma: Oedipus in the House


Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

At his press conference in Benoni on Thursday, Julius Malema vowed to haunt and hound President Zuma with every breath he took and every move he made. In many ways, Malema's rivalry with President Zuma is a classically Oedipal one, in the Freudian sense. Until Oedipus (the son) kills his father – metaphorically, of course – there will be no rest for the wicked - or for the rest of us. But the trick question is this: will Malema lose his potency if he should ever see his mission accomplished?

If President Zuma was hoping that the noise and clamour around Nkandla in the National Assembly would go away after his late-night offer to pay off some of the costs taxpayers incurred renovating his crib, he’d better brace himself to deal with a whole lot more. The sound and fury is not going to go away until he steps down, one way or another.

Every time he turns a page we are going to speak. When he goes to the next page, we will speak. If he speaks for 25 minutes there will be an additional 25 minutes for the EFF,” a boisterous and emboldened EFF commander-in-chief Julius Malema told journalists at a press conference on Friday.

And far from leaving President Zuma alone, “we are going to share that time with him. It will be he and the EFF giving the State of the Nation Address that day. It is him, us and the white shirts.”

Zuma must rue the day he announced that Malema was a “leader in the making” worthy of inheriting the ANC.

But aside from the rhetoric and political posturing, a mighty battle of classic Oedipal proportions is playing itself out in the public arena that is the National Assembly with us, the citizens of the country, as alternately shocked and thrilled spectators.

The battle can only end two ways, and both endings, according to the myth, will not be good for either player in the tragedy.

The original Oedipus Rex by Sophocles is an extraordinary work of imagination that has endured over more than 24 centuries. It was the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, however, who used the foundation of the story to formulate his theory of the Oedipal Complex, a son’s desire to metaphorically eliminate his father and possess his mother. For Freud this is a universal cornerstone of human psychological development.

In Sophocles’ tale, King Laius of Thebes is informed by an Oracle that should he ever produce a son, he, the king, would die at his hand. Oedipus is born and three days later his mother Jocasta gives him away to a shepherd, hoping to avert the tragedy. Abandon the child, she says, so he may perish.

Another passing shepherd discovers the baby Oedipus and gives him to the childless Polybus, King of Corinth, and his wife, Merope, who raise him as their own. Oedipus later consults the Oracle of Delphi who gives him the rather startling news that he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Believing that Polybus and Merope are his biological parents, Oedipus leaves Corinth fleeing this murder foretold.

However, on the road from Delphi to Thebes, Oedipus is accosted by two quarrelsome men in a carriage. He kills the driver and then the passenger, who turns out to be his biological father Laius, but of course Oedipus has no idea yet. Arriving in Thebes, now in disarray and at the mercy of the Sphinx because of the murder of King Laius, Oedipus answers a riddle and wins the throne of the dead king, marrying his widow, Jocasta his mother, thus fulfilling the prophecy.

In a nutshell Freud used the myth to propose the theory that in the course of establishing a distinct sexual identity, sons and boys direct their libidinal energies at their mothers and jealousy and rivalry against their fathers, who are viewed as competitors for the mother’s attention.

To facilitate this union with the mother, the son metaphorically seeks to kill his father. The boy-child understands his father is stronger than he and fears castration by the father. It is a fear, reckoned Freud, that is an irrational subconscious manifestation of the infantile id – that component of the personality made up of unconscious psychic energy that seeks to satisfy basic urges, needs and desires.

Unresolved son–father competition for the psycho-sexual possession of the mother might result in a phallic stage fixation that leads to the boy becoming an aggressive, over-ambitious and vain man,” said Freud.

Look, it’s a great deal more complex than this, but echoes of Freud’s Oedipal Complex can be identified in the ongoing struggle between Malema and Zuma, and Malema’s desire to “kill” his metaphorical father one way or another.

Malema grew up fatherless and was raised by his single mother Florah until she died after an epileptic fit. His grandmother, Sarah, was left to raise him. At the age of nine Malema found a surrogate family, the ANC, where he was mentored by Peter Mokaba, later elected President of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) after the party’s unbanning in 1991.

Malema rose through the ranks and became President of the ANCYL in 2008, placing him in close proximity to the top echelons of power in the party, including then-Deputy President Jacob Zuma. It was Malema, as an ANCYL kingmaker, who supported and backed Zuma, vowing – as he is often reminded now – that he was prepared to “die for Zuma” should the then Deputy President face charges of fraud and corruption.

Emboldened by the victory of his principal in 2009, Malema began to speak out on various matters – Zuma’s leadership, President Mbeki, nationalisation of the mines. He visited Robert Mugabe, and said the woman who had charged Zuma with rape should have been “grateful” she had been given a taxi fare. and began singing inflammatory struggle songs.

The once beloved son had become a liability and had to be excommunicated. In 2012 Malema was formally expelled from the ANC and found himself, for a time, in the political wilderness. Stung by the rejection he formed his own party.

The rest of the story continues to make for compelling television.

And so here we are watching from the side lines these two men locked in a titanic battle for survival. The son Malema, wanting to kill his father, Zuma, and in so doing perhaps unconsciously return either to the mother body, or at least restore her dignity which has been “sullied” by a Zuma presidency.

Much of Malema’s potency as a political leader derives from the wound of his expulsion, rejection and abandonment from and by the ANC. The focus of this rage is Jacob Zuma, the man who heads this party and the country. And as Malema made clear at his press conference, he will not abandon the onslaught until Zuma as fallen.

If it is not Nkandla and #paybackthemoney, it will be another hashtag campaign: #whydidyoufirenene or #guptasmustgo or any number of other scandals that have plagued the Zuma presidency. It will not stop until Jacob Zuma has vacated the centre stage of South African politics.

What the EFF and Julius Malema are capable of in future will be revealed in a landscape where Zuma will be absent. If the ANC is able to replace Zuma with a leader who is capable of restoring the party, its reputation and its credibility, the EFF will have to find new ways of attracting attention.

In ‘killing’ off Zuma, Malema might just end up ‘killing’ or wounding himself.

In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Jocasta, his mother, commits suicide when she learns of the tragedy and the fact that she has been the wife of her son. Horrified by it all, Oedipus rips a brooch from her dress and plunges the pin into his eyes, blinding himself. Thereafter he becomes a wandering beggar.

The real-life drama may be even more dramatic. DM


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