Don't encourage us
23 July 2017 06:36 (South Africa)
Opinionista Steven Boykey Sidley

Julius Malema. There is no one else in SA politics any more.

  • Steven Boykey Sidley
    steven-sidley.jpg
    Steven Boykey Sidley

    Steven Boykey Sidley has divided his adult life between the USA and South Africa. He has meandered through careers as an animator, chief technology officer for a Fortune 500 company, jazz musician, software developer, video game designer, private equity investor and high technology entrepreneur. He currently lives in Johannesburg with his wife and two children. Entanglement, his first novel, was sparked by a whiskey-fuelled dinner party debate and Stepping Out is his second novel. Steven’s third novel, Imperfect Solo, released in February 2014. Entanglement was awarded the 2013 UJ Debut Prize and was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize. Stepping Out was shortlisted for the UJ Main Fiction Prize in 2014

I went to Daily Maverick’s The Gathering as a novelist, seeking a spark of inspiration for fiction. I didn’t find it, but as they say, truth is stranger.

I had never seen Julius Malema speak, other than on TV soundbites. And good fortune found me sitting in the centre of a gaggle of red berets, so when a slimmed down version of Julius Malema strode onto stage (presumably on a fitness regime designed to withstand the rigours of being taking seriously), my neighbours sprang to their feet as at a Pentecostal revival, hands aloft, voices raised.

Mmusi Maimane had spoken before Malema. The DA leader was better than I have seen him previously. In command of the facts, well rehearsed and on message. Rational and sane, even able to raise a small heartbeat or two with a well-turned phrase. My neighbours sat silently through his performance, clucking disapprovingly but quietly when he threw barbs in the general direction of their prophet. And then he left, a job well done.

But, alas. He was instantly forgotten.

Malema approached the podium. He politely thanked those who had to be thanked, recognised the members of his party sitting expectantly in the crowded hall. And then, like a bull suddenly angered, he exploded. He roared and bellowed and berated. He threatened. He insulted. He extracted laughter at exactly the right moment, and righteous outrage at the next. He promised an easy nirvana for the faithful. He pointed his accusing finger at the mainly white audience like a wrathful God, and delighted in their cowering. He spun out pointed anecdotes and made promises on top of promises. He flung searing opprobrium and vilification at real and imagined enemies. All in a thundering voice that made a mockery of his microphone.

He was, in short, astonishing. It was one of the most accomplished political performances I have ever seen, more worthy of the Globe Theatre in England than the dirty world of political persuasion. A tour-de-force display of affront and offence and simplistic solution. And around me his supporters emitted a startling array of vocalisations – chortles and shrieks and ululations and whistles and yebos and uh-huhs. Their saviour was in full throat and so were they. The religious overtones were hard to ignore.

And here’s the thing – at times he was so convincing, so damn right that I too nodded and clapped, slightly ashamed of my pallid reservedness. On matters of corruption (we ignore here his own historical failings in this regard), on Zuma and his fallen sycophants, on the continuing despair of the poor, on the multiple failures of daily governance, on cadres and concubines – he was masterful and righteous.

And the insults! Good God, he made Trump look dull. Mmusi was simply “that fool” who “Googled Venezuela backstage” so he could make a point based on “ignorance of the facts”. Zuma was a man of “limited intelligence” and Malema described to great laughter his animal-like grunts when he had reached his limits of abstract thought. Cyril, Zweli, Helen, white people in general – he just took everyone apart with contemptuous and hilarious prejudice.

And then there was the twaddle. The EFF manifesto describes a municipality-led country where citizens are coddled with free healthcare, free education, free prime beef cuts (I kid you not) and free houses, paid for by Pick n Pay (and fellow travellers) and led by citizen activists trained by old Afrikaans men unjustly cast aside by the ANC (I kid you not, again). This was an imagined centrist utopia to make Stalin blush, so full of logical fallacies and economic OMGs that should make anyone gasp. Our entire Constitution would have to be shredded and rewritten for this to reach first base. State control of everything. Cradle to grave. And when challenged by the moderators as to the legacy of failed state-owned enterprises, Malema pointed to apartheid Eskom, apartheid Transnet, apartheid Spoornet, apartheid SAA. The Afrikaners did it. Are you saying we cannot because we are black?

I sunk in my chair. It was pure genius.

But they didn’t gasp, their breasts swelled with pride and hope. That’s the beauty of politics. If you promise with enough panache and gusto and confidence, why bother with the details? And why bother with knowledge of the issues? Trump won the Republican nomination with a quiver full of similar arrows of disingenuity. It is easy to get desperate people to believe in your world when supported by such combustive oratory, and on that wave a presidency may one day be in sight. Followed, certainly, by widespread misery and collapse.

Malema. There is no one else in SA politics any more. Terrifying and brilliant, our worst nightmare, we middle-class intelligentsia. And my vermillion-clad neighbours’ best, great hope. DM

  • Steven Boykey Sidley
    steven-sidley.jpg
    Steven Boykey Sidley

    Steven Boykey Sidley has divided his adult life between the USA and South Africa. He has meandered through careers as an animator, chief technology officer for a Fortune 500 company, jazz musician, software developer, video game designer, private equity investor and high technology entrepreneur. He currently lives in Johannesburg with his wife and two children. Entanglement, his first novel, was sparked by a whiskey-fuelled dinner party debate and Stepping Out is his second novel. Steven’s third novel, Imperfect Solo, released in February 2014. Entanglement was awarded the 2013 UJ Debut Prize and was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize. Stepping Out was shortlisted for the UJ Main Fiction Prize in 2014

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