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The hollowing out of Julius Malema


Steven Boykey Sidley is a Professor at JBS, University of Johannesburg, and the co-author of Beyond Bitcoin: Decentralised Finance and the End of Banks (with Simon Dingle).

About 18 months ago I saw Julius Malema address a sceptical crowd at Daily Maverick’s The Gathering at Vodacom World. My previous exposure to Malema had been minimal, and I was impressed. Here was an astute and ambitious young politician skilfully deploying the fiery oratory of leadership in the service of his cause. As I wrote at the time, he was incisive, funny, authoritative, scary and quick on his feet at question time. But alas, I saw something else at the recent The Gathering at the Sandton Convention Centre.

Julius Malema was given prime closing position at 17:30 at Daily Maverick’s The Gathering, joined on stage by the inimitable Richard Poplak, who had apparently been specifically requested by the Economic Freedom Fighters. Malema arrives on stage dressed and body-sculpted more like a GQ model than a politician; clearly somebody has been hard at work on his image over the last 18 months.

His supporters, however (strategically clustered together in the large hall), continue with their now tired and embarrassing look-how-different-and-cool-we-are red and military hybrid outfit. It seems clear to me that this party’s vocal supporters are a long way from the greater respect they would accrue were they to dress like average citizens and proffer convincing arguments.  Having seen this costume drama many times since it was first so effective, it now just looks silly. The cadres were active during previous speakers’ question times, mostly with inarticulate Bolshevik whatnot about ownership of production and distribution and exchange, and the general awfulness of whites.

Malema stepped up to the the podium to a pin-drop audience. And began his speech with uncharacteristic timidity, reeling off an exhausted list of the similar tired outrage that the audience had heard many times during the day, which can be summed up as – the ANC is rotten, it makes no difference who wins in December, the ANC is dead, people must go to jail, they’re history, let’s move on.

He then launched into an interesting commentary around how the rural voter sees politics as synonymous with the ANC, and how they always vote for the ANC, and how the country expresses the will of its voters. I expected a hammer-blow punchline as to how the EFF would break this cycle. None came, other than confusing waffle about “taking our brand to the branches” during the later Poplak interaction. He sidelined into a tangent about coalitions, which also fizzled without any insight. And conspicuously absent this year, any mention of the great and noble Venezuelan political system.

Malema’s voice and gestures grew more animated over the course of his address, but it was a victory of form over substance. There was simply nothing there. He made the audience laugh in describing how scared white people are of White Monopoly Capital accusations. He made the audience laugh in his bizarre invitation to Afrikaner women to join the EFF to break the shackles of Afrikaner patriarchy. He even jumped into the Trumpian fake news pot by declaring that the DA was responsible for the huge water problem in Sandton that day (they weren’t, they were fixing an ANC-neglected pipeline).

He repeated entertaining rubbish about how it would make no difference if the EFF scared away international investors because they were of no use to poor people anyway who only ever eat crumbs (surely, I think, by this stage in his career he might have consulted with real economists about how much smaller that crumb-pile would be without international investors, but apparently not). He became ever more entertaining as the depth of his delivered content became ever less so.

Explain your Mugabe flip-flop, Poplak asked. We’ve always loved Uncle Bob, and still do, he should just have left the dance floor earlier, he responded. Thereby spitting in the face of every Zimbabwean who had been celebrating on the streets that day. You’ve been strangely silent over the past year, Poplak observed. Yes, he answered, I am watching the ANC eat itself, I don’t want to interfere. Scarcely believable from a man for whom public relations and headline news is food and fuel.

Perhaps a more likely explanation: Malema has nothing new to say, and is stuck on exhausted revolutionary repeat phrases which are of diminishing interest to everyone, media included.

Unless this party matures, it will remain a sideshow. Entertaining, but a sideshow nevertheless. DM


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