Julius Malema is a child of this struggle. Not only the good struggle for liberation from apartheid, but the ANC’s elitist struggle that followed, for the accumulation of material wealth. First as an ANC Youth League demagogue, amassing R18-million in tax debts, later paid by a notorious trader in illicit cigarettes, and more recently as a self-styled militarist “commander-in-chief” of so-called “ground forces”.
Using mobile stages, the parliamentary arena, and open-air rallies to ride the news cycle through the use of controversy, Malema has built a public persona which now casts an enormous shadow over our national discourse. An icon for some, forged in the cauldron of anger and greed.
Malema is in a street fight with reality
The struggle for political freedom in South Africa was a worthy one, a necessary battle fought on principle and at an enormous cost to the heroes who dedicated themselves to its cause. Economic freedom, by contrast, requires a different logic.
Consider that a human is born with innate worth, and if one is of the democratic persuasion, such inherent dignity predicates an innate personal freedom, or liberty for all. Persons, therefore, ought to be free from tyranny and political repression.
In economic terms, though, there is no guarantee of material affluence by virtue of birth. No man or woman is born with a silver spoon in their personhood. Unless we survive, we die — living lives that are “brutish and short”, as Thomas Hobbes imagined, is our natural state. That is not a dignified reality to accept. It is the reality humans have overcome the world over through effort, innovation and the diligent pursuit of productivity.
But Malema holds a different view. Instead of a Hobbesian acceptance of natural struggle for progress, in the romantic Africanist conception of Malema people of continental decent deserve access to material wealth, tied to the soil, by virtue merely of their geographic heritage. This is of course partially true, if one imagines a nomadic pastoralist existence or subsistence farming, to be an end in human progress. Furthermore, the abuses of colonialism and apartheid distort the fact that wealth is not a universal right.
Malema’s historic utopianism causes him to conjure up a magical path to economic freedom (or wealth), which like political freedom, is imagined to be a unitary dessert that can be recovered, retaken, seized and conferred. This world view, however, pits Malema against the reality of 21st-century South Africa, where less that 3% of economic productivity is in the agricultural sector and more than 60% of the people live in cities, while those who do enjoy the privilege of a livelihood are more likely to be knowledge-workers than laborers.
But the appeal of Malema’s delusion, he understands, is powerful enough to drown out its internal inconsistencies. He, and the new EFF elite, have the same basic strategy as the false prosperity prophets which dot our inner cities; they preach illusive affluence while enriching themselves on the backs of the faithful hopeful, as was done at VBS.
Malema touches a national nerve
If Malema had been born 30 years earlier he would likely have become a guerrilla leader in the struggle. Not the type who does drills and who carry rifles in bush camps, but the type who fire rhetorical bullets at their opponents in order to build up the arsenal of courage needed among foot soldiers.
That is why he finds resonance with the non-exiled personalities who historically fulfilled that role. He is a gifted orator, who would likely have used his poignant turn-of-phrase to debilitate his political opponents. “Superior logic”, he calls it, which is the meat and potatoes of a political dogfight. The manipulation of language, a tool by which, like clay, the population is molded.
Hitler, for instance, understood this basic truth: that one can use words to rake together the dry leaves of people’s emotions, gathering them like forests of wind-tossed souls to a single-story narrative, and then like a careless match thrown into the undergrowth, set them alight to burn with rage. This is Malema’s sport. It is what he gives society in exchange for access to power and wealth, which is his real ambition.
But as he will learn, fire, once started, does not discriminate against its progenitor.
Malema’s dream dystopia for South Africa
Malema dreams of an epic generational show-down, an oversimplified binary between guilty “whites” and wronged “Africans”, with himself at the centre. Not unlike other well-meaning power-mongers elsewhere in Africa, he dreams of righting the cumulative wrongs meted out against Africans over centuries, by amassing history’s guilt on the shoulders of this single generation of so-called settlers, and balancing the scales by giving his own generation their just deserts, the spoils of a just war, that was due to their forebears.
It is a powerful narrative, though a flawed oversimplification of reality, behind which self-enrichment can comfortably hide. But it offers nothing by way of economic liberation. Instead it offers a dismemberment of the social contract and slavery to the state.
This vision informs his uniform, his title, his “war room”, and sadly, the tone of political engagement that increasingly marks his public conduct. It informed Malema’s zealous willingness to kill for Zuma, and then his glee in agitating for the former President’s political demise. It inspires his willingness to cut the throat of whiteness, rhetorically of course, and then deny culpability for the brutality of his use of imagery, in a nation torn by violent crime.
It gives him a license to demean, belittle, disrupt and ridicule, in order to deflect responsibility for the impoverishment of decorum that has followed him at every step along the path of his rise. It is what allows him to erode our national debate through insult and deception, to further his own agenda.
Some call it populism, but Malema represents a deeper, more septic socio-psychological disease — it is hate, vengeance and oppression, masquerading as liberation. It carries the same DNA as white nationalism did, and is clearly prone to the same self-delusional abuses. Farheed Zakaria has described it as the misuse of democratic institutions to create a form of illiberal democracy.
The trouble with the political cancer that Malema has nurtured is that he feeds off criticism and uses truth, critique and rejection as twisted linchpins around which to create momentum and popularise his message.
It is the same manoeuvre that US President Donald Trump uses when he insults the press. Call Malema out for benefiting from VBS, and he will fake victimhood to appeal to the plight of real victims. Criticism strengthens his voice, because he stokes emotion by provoking enmity, thereby assassinating reasonable debate. It is an old tactic perfected by many self-seeking leaders before him and he won’t be the last to use it.
As the media will discover, Malema’s carnival of polarisation is only accelerated by confrontation. As with all bullies, they are best overcome by ignoring them, banishing them to the lonely world of their own dysfunction. As an enemy of a good society, they are overcome by the rule of law, principled debate and an unwillingness to be intimidated.
I hope Malema can reform himself. South Africa needs strong, talented leaders who can inspire his generation, not to make war but to build peace and prosperity. We need public servants who feel a sense of duty in their contribution to building a united nation. We need rising stars and iconic performers in all spheres of our society, cheered onwards and upwards to their full potential. We need strong foundations on which to build a future. One such foundation is respect for one another, and the decency becoming a people once freed from tyranny, to use our freedom to lift each other out of the pain of history, on to a path to a better future.
That is why we chose democracy over tyranny. It is why we should reject Malema’s current approach and demand more political maturity from him. DM