Opinionista Judith February 21 June 2018

Pesky public memory dogs Julius Malema

Everyone seems surprised that EFF leader Julius Malema spews forth racist vitriol. Where have they been for the past years, one wonders? He has always been a rank opportunist.

There’s something pesky called public memory and it will not allow us to forget Malema standing on the steps of court defending then- president Jacob Zuma and shouting, “Let us make it clear now: we are prepared to die for Zuma!” He was then perfectly comfortable defending Zuma during his rape trial in which Zuma’s accuser was treated like a pariah until her tragic death.

This is the same Malema who in February 2009 said of Zuma and his corruption charges, ‘“If he is so corrupt and he must be punished, let the voters do that […]. Why do you want to subject him to the hands of the few, the judiciary, the judges and the media? Leave it to the voters, 23,000,000 must decide whether Zuma becomes president or not, not the judges”.

Malema subsequently also faced criticism regarding his alleged comments about white farmers when he said, ‘Shoot the farmers (boers), they are racist’.

In addition, allegations of corruption have also swirled around Malema since questions were raised as far back as 2011 regarding the Ratanang Trust of which he is the sole trustee.

Being expelled from the ANC led to the establishment of the EFF and further headaches for Zuma. Yet, despite Malema and his party often challenging Zuma in the courts, Malema can hardly be described as an institutionalist. In fact, at every turn in Parliament, Malema and the EFF have sought to disrupt proceedings as the broederstwis with the ANC became uglier during the Zuma years.

But those years are over now and Malema understands that the weaknesses Zuma had are not those of his successor, Ramaphosa.

In Parliament and outside, Malema has quite obviously run out of constructive ideas with which to challenge Ramaphosa who is making some steady progress in dealing with the detritus of the Zuma years. And so Malema has defaulted to type – race baiting and name-calling. In recent weeks he has continued his tirade against white people (“we have not called for the killing of white people…at least for now”) and labelling Indians as racist.

One could go on. Whether it’s white people, Indians, Ismail Momoniat in National Treasury or Pravin Gordhan, the name-calling continues.

It is a limited response from a limited politician. Currently, the EFF holds 25 seats in Parliament with 6.34% of the vote. That share increased slightly during the 2016 local government elections when it garnered 8.25% of the vote then.

It is worth remembering that while still calling out Malema’s duplicity. One suspects that as the 2019 election approaches Malema will become even more desperate in his bid to divide South Africans.

All this is not to say that we do not have serious and structural economic challenges that are exacerbated by race and which need to be tackled head-on. It also does not mean that our society is devoid of racism.

Yet, what Malema offers is simply the disruption with very little by way of concrete solutions other than simple populism – “nationalise the land!”, “nationalise the banks!” while he himself continues to reap the fruits of a capitalist system and buys his way out of the discomfort – the poseur in red overalls in Parliament.

It’s all unprincipled spectacle and it is time to see Malema for who he is. He has done a decent enough job of showing us in the past years, after all.

Speaking of racism, the storm that has been the Ashwin Willemse / SuperSport incident has again indicated how quickly we jump to conclusions in this topsy-turvy country of ours and how confusing our conversations about race can sometimes be. The facts are familiar now after Willemse walked off the SuperSport set having accused co-commentators, Naas Botha and Nick Mallett of racism. Immediately, the twitterati and others leapt to Willemse’s defence, arguing that he was the victim of subliminal racism. Radio talk shows devoted tracts of time to racism in the workplace and related issues.

Advocate Vincent Maleka SC’s findings subsequently released showed there was no racism involved in the incident. But possibly the most surprising aspect of the entire matter is that Willemse himself did not speak to the inquiry. He chose not to which is perplexing to say the least. According to his attorney, he thought it would be a “fruitless exercise” and there were legal and process issues with which Willemse did not agree. Yet, the same attorney told a radio programme that Willemse was now prepared to speak. So, it’s all rather confused.

It remains curious because here was an opportunity for Willemse to set the record straight and to speak in a so-called “safe space”, yet he eschewed it. On what basis, one wonders, did Willemse believe he would not get a fair hearing?

Is he suggesting Maleka was biased? Those arguing for Willemse say that because the relationship of power is skewed, the hearing was always going to be stacked against Willemse. But would SuperSport have been acting appropriately if it had not held the inquiry and simply carried on with business as usual – surely not?

We do not know what Willemse’s views are as he chose to remain silent. Yet, similarly condescendingly, many have chosen to speak on his behalf. It is inaccurate to portray him only in terms of victimhood and with no sense of agency in this entire incident.

The Equality Court is now Willemse’s port of call. The Equality courts have specifically been set up to determine whether there has been “unfair discrimination” which is defined on the justice.gov.za site as, “……when you are treated differently as compared to other categories of people and that your dignity as a human being is impaired by such treatment. Discrimination is regarded as unfair when it imposes burdens or withholds benefits or opportunities from any person on one of the prohibited grounds listed in the Act, namely: race, gender, sex, pregnancy, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth etc.”

Needless to say, many on social media have now pilloried Maleka, SuperSport and Mallett and Botha. The latter must be racists and the employer must be covering it all up, the logic goes.

As is often the case with this kind of issue, it becomes an unhelpful binary where affect overwhelms rationality to the point where the “debate” itself becomes pointless. Asking any question about Willemse’s conduct renders one a supporter of racist behaviour – no matter who you are.

In this narrative Maleka becomes a “stooge” of “white masters” and Willemse is right no matter what. Saying that Willemse ought to have spoken to Maleka does not mean racism does not exist, in the workplace or anywhere else. It also does not mean that Mallett is not an annoying ‘know-it-all’ or that Botha speaks the Queen’s English. It also does not mean that subliminal racism is not often a fact of every- day life for black people in the workplace.

It simply means that the Willemse matter has not been a helpful barometer of anything substantive and has thus far brought sturm und drang but not much else. Perhaps the Equality Court will provide greater clarity on Willemse’s position and the subliminal racism he asserts is everywhere present at SuperSport? But as with any court ruling in a matter like this, Willemse will find that it will mostly be wholly inadequate. DM

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