Malema: South Africa’s Person Of The Year

Malema: South Africa's Person Of The Year
Julius Malema

AFRICANGLOBE – It wasn’T even close. South African President Jacob Zuma, who brought the ANC a fifth landslide win at the polls, Thuli Madonsela who produced the Nkandla report and Oscar Pistorius, three of notable South Africans said something important and lasting about their country in 2014, but they said it in the shadow of a giant floating onesie.

South African politics, never for the faint of heart, has become a space opera directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Parliamentarians no longer require knowledge of points of order, but a Mixed Martial Arts degree. We used to be Comrades, now we’re Fighters. We wanted a messiah, and we got one. Of a sort.

Economic Freedom Fighters party leader Julius Sello “JuJu” Malema owned 2014.

How about a video montage? Roll music: Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”. First reel: Malema smacking down a white dude in a Seshego burger joint for acting like a white dude, ushering in an inevitable lawsuit from white supremacist Afrikaner lobby group AfriForum.

Second reel: Malema in his red overalls, fist raised, looking out over the adoring crowds in a sweltering Marikana.

Third reel: Malema in Parliament, in the same red onesie, yelling “Pay Back the Money”. Fourth reel: Malema in the Independent Electoral Commission on May 9, conceding defeat to the ANC, flush with having garnered 6 percent of the vote, and the political legitimacy that comes with it.

One may cut the rest.

It’s tough to find someone in the country incapable of pulling out a Malema anecdote, and almost no one who doesn’t feel a slight twinge of admiration for the sheer, epic-scale chutzpah attached to his continued rise.

He is textbook populist who hasn’t properly tested his popularity — the EFF won its 25 seats in Parliament without registering voters, and therefore stole 6 percent from the other, established parties. What does the future hold? Good question.

Somme may argue that Julius Malema is a “media-created phenomenon” but Malema is actually under-represented as a media figure, or at the very least has to battle a newscape that is enormously hostile to opposition parties.

The EFF made this into a contact sport in April, when they marched to the state broadcaster, protesting the banning of an election advertisement that encouraged supporters to physically destroy e-toll gantries.

Which brings us to the issue of Malema’s sound-bite driven persona, and forces us to ask whether there is any wors with the EFF’s mounds of starchy pap.

Say what you will about the ANC’s National Development Plan, at least it exists — so much so that the DA have largely endorsed it, and ANC supporters can debate its relative merits if they run out of household chores or are subject to an enormously long load-shed. The EFF ran for the 2014 elections on the basis of a thin election manifesto, derived from a much lengthier founding manifesto.

Titled “Radical Movement to Economic Freedom in our Lifetime”, the document opens with a quote from Fanon—“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it”— and continues with the retro-vibe for 14 000 words.

The drafters mention land 41 times, and their tome is stuffed with pre-edited, vaguely digested academic neo-Marxisms like, “Heterodox economists have perfectly illustrated the reality that virtually all developing economies that imbibe and naturalise the neoliberal policy prescriptions of the international financial institutions (the World Bank and International Monetary Fund) have and will never realise real economic development, as witnessed in all developed economies.”

The EFF under Malema has always been undergirded by a radical leftist line, and identifies its enemies as “political parties whose agenda and political programme is to continue with white supremacy and the imperialist domination of South Africa”.

To this end, the party has erected seven “cardinal” non-negotiable pillars that include the expropriation of land without compensation, nationalisation of all mines, banks and “strategic sectors of the economy” without compensation, and some very big sweeping of “economic development”, whatever that may mean when no one owns land and the government runs the banks.

Despite the reams of literature and the hours of extemporaneous yammering, Julius Malema has emerged as a political strategist par excellence.

He is not yet considered a political thinker. He is less Julius Nyerere than Kenneth Kaunda, and those comparisons in themselves suggest a dingy malaise: Malema turns our political imaginations toward Africa in the 1960s, and liberation movements that South Africa was supposed to learn from rather than emulate.

Still, the CiC was once portrayed in the press as an uneducated moron. That’s yesterday’s copy. Today’s op-ed column inches are somewhat more ambiguous, as if we’re all awaiting the Big Speech, in which Malema reveals exactly how the EFF will win Economic Freedom in Our Time, and how that freedom would function both as an alternative to, and within context of, the global neoliberal status quo.

In more innocent times, before Malema had become the most important political figure in the country, Zimbabwe’s land reforms were used as a happy reference for what awaited us in a Utopian agrarian future.

There remains deep suspicion regarding Malema’s motivations, and his penchant for the finer things in life — those Mercedes wagons, those R7 500 Louis Vuitton slippers, that enormous freaking tax bill! Grizzled, battle-scarred Stalinists like Ronnie Kasrils, who long ago abandoned the ANC for ditching the Freedom Charter, gets a randy glint in the eye when he talks about the EFF.

But the leftist intelligentsia has been much less supportive, and one has to look hard to find either encomiums or denunciations from those who might be expected to embrace the warmed over Fanon-isms.

There is this pervasive sense that while Malema is everywhere, he remains essentially unknowable.

Many whites remain terrified of him for his olde-timey “Shoot the Boer” sing-a-longs, and his Polokwane-era “we’ll kill for Zuma” bloviations.

Many middle-class Africans remain terrified of him because it’s not like their land won’t be gobbled up by the new, red-clad cadres.

Malema inhabits an essential, uneasy part of the South African imagination.

It’s as if we dreamed him up and spat him out of our collective unconscious — a mixture of rage and finesse, brutality and charm, balls and bravado that is essentially South African.

This was his year. Next year may not be.

But the crown will be increasingly hard to dislodge, especially as Malema learns to wear it.


By: Richard Poplack