What have you done for us lately?
Malema may elicit admiration from the youth for his brash cheek, but for most, he’s a colourful one-off with very little clout
Those of us who fret about the numerous threats Julius Malema has made since becoming president of the ANC’s Youth League are worried because we don’t understand what it means politically to have such a wild card in our midst. His abrasive, confrontational style is not what we’ve come to expect of our national leaders in the post-apartheid era. From his “kill for Zuma” vow last year to more recent sexist and racist comments – as well as his Mugabe-like accusations against the opposition party he claims wants to “sell…the country to British colonialists” – Malema has become the most outspoken of South Africa’s politicians.
Watched warily abroad, he embarrasses many of us at home with his toe-curlingly crude comments. Various parts of the ruling party, including Zuma and the ANC’s National Executive Committee, have tried from time to time to rein him in, but Malema carries on abusing even his own senior political colleagues, accusing the dignified Education Minister Naledi Pandor of speaking with “a fake American accent” (much to Malema’s own grandmother’s dismay) and threatening the respected former Reserve Bank governor with political ostracism when Tito Mboweni insisted that South Africa’s mines were not going be nationalized.
After speculating about him for months, confused citizens like me would like to know what Malema represents in South African politics. He described himself during the recent presidential election as a decoy to “distract” the opposition while Zuma “sprinted to the Union Buildings”. What sort of dummy is he today?
Critics say he is simply an ill-educated 28-year-old who lacks struggle credentials so has modelled himself grandiosely on the youth activists of the 1976 generation. Or that he a mini Zuma making the radical pronouncements our populist leader has avoided in achieving his initial exemplary presidential report card from the media. Some observers believe Malema is a stalking horse for the SACP and Cosatu but nobody seems to know how much influence he actually has in the ANC alliance.
Is he, as other pundits contend, little more than a perverse celebrity; a vain young man hooked on publicity at any price? Could he be the ANC’s court jester, pointing jocularly to problems that require radical commentary under the new left-leaning dispensation; saying the provocative things no one else wants to say?
Or does Julius Malema represent something else entirely: an unexpected move away from the cultural schizophrenia that has been the norm on this continent for generations? I remember a trusty cook in a rural farmstead telling a journalist colleague years ago that Africans tried so hard to couch their conversations with employers in terms and values acceptable to whites that they ended up speaking in a completely different way when discussing the same subject with their fellow blacks. Has Malema, son of a domestic worker, caught us unawares by dispensing with the customary code-switching language “of the formerly whites-only institutions into which we have been inducted as honorary members”, as democracy analyst Eusebius McKaiser put it recently, in favour of saying exactly what he means (visceral hatred, dumb naivety, and all).
When I approached several Sowetans of Malema’s age and background who daily inhabit the parallel cultures of corporate world and township, they readily admitted applauding Malema’s remarks about Pandor’s accent. Such chauvinistic patriotism is the controversial youth leader’s speciality and appears to have earned him a following. But the same young, ANC-supporting South Africans openly scorned Malema’s double standards. “He lives in Sandton, smokes cigars and buys designer clothes so how radical can he be?” asked a computer programmer. “He’s just playing a role, like the new government. They blame Mbeki for everything but what are they actually doing differently?”
“And where does Malema get all the money he spends on his rich lifestyle?” asked another young man who markets computer software.
One pointedly unidentified member of the group of friends who had agreed to discuss Malema on condition of anonymity asked why the media gave what DA leader Helen Zille calls “this rude boy” so much attention. “It just encourages him,” agreed a beautician who is studying interior design part-time.
Answering for my profession, I said Malema was an elected leader of the ruling party with every right to express the often outrageous opinions we journalists report mainly because he is a public official, not only because he is the country’s top newsmaker.
A girl in the circle, a bank teller, suggested that Malema’s appetite for publicity might become problematic down the line. “A lot of people all around us here are getting bitter these days because they can’t get rich. They do not have the education or the background to find jobs. They might laugh at Malema but they listen to what he says. They do not want him to be made to look foolish by the newspapers. He is a kind of hero for them, although they would prefer him to do something for the youth, which he is not doing.”
She went on to suggest that Malema, whom she says she has observed on a number of occasions in the flesh, is too thin-skinned to tolerate the media lampooning his ill-advised statements attract. A satirical columnist, for example, has nick-named him “Jelly Tsotsi” after a brand of kids’ sweets called Jelly Tots. And a couple of cartoonists regularly draw him in diapers. “He laughs at the insults but underneath you can see he is angry because he wants to be taken seriously”, she claimed.
So what is the verdict: how will the alternately smiling and scowling Julius Malema impact on us as a nation?
“Malema is not a problem at all except for his own ego,” replied the teller. “He’s nobody important,” agreed the beautician.
“Just a colourful one-off?” I ventured, and they all nodded.