I have listened to political analysts, academics, businessmen and women and ordinary people trying to convince me that Julius Malema is the biggest problem this country has ever been confronted with post-democracy. I have heard arguments about how he is a “populist”, an “opportunist”, a “demagogue” and “a danger to the future of the country”. I have heard these arguments posed by the most astute of intellectuals, the most progressive of minds as well as the most regressive elements in our society. I have heard them echoed in lecture theatres of Rhodes University, in the media, on the streets and on the social network scene. To date they continue to make very little, if any real, sense, for whatever damage it is that Malema allegedly did is not comparable to the greatness the ANC Youth League achieved under his leadership.
One of the greatest tragedies about South African society is how entrenched mob psychology is. Our retreat from engaging objectively on matters of racial antagonisms has resulted in the naturalisation of opinionated prejudice and a herd mentality. But more than that, it has resulted in the tendency to shift from fundamental questions as we employ our energies on vilifying folk devils that are a creation of moral panic, which is largely fuelled by the media. While Malema is not necessarily an angel with a shining halo, he is also not the monster he is projected as and in fact, he is one of the young people with the greatest potential to re-write the narrative of the oppressed black majority in this country. But to understand the vital role Malema has played and is yet to play, we must first understand black not as subjects of political and media chess, but as a people with a history that has shaped our collective consciousness.
For over five hundred years, black people in this country have been on the receiving end of the most brutal systematic subjugation known to human history. The dispossession of black people goes beyond the dispossession of our land and economy. The dispossession of black people goes to the dispossession of our very humanness. The most tragic thing about the dispossession of a people’s humanness, if only because of the psychological ramifications that leave both mental and physical scars, is that it contains us within a prism of soporification and ultimately, traps us in a state of defeatism. This is a state in which we have been over the past two decades. The reality that the new dispensation is bleeding from wounds of the past regime have weighed heavily on the mental and psychological state of our people. Despite revolutionary gains we made, our people continue to face the worst form of systematic and institutionalised brutality. We are faced with ostracisation from the economy, coupled with the refusal of the white minority to make a conscious effort to contribute to the genuine reconstruction of the country. The sustained arrogance of many white people of both working class and bourgeois backgrounds is evident in many spheres of life.
At the heart of this reality is the sustained monopolisation of the economy by an elite minority. According to a JSE-commissioned study released in December 2012, black investors directly hold 9% of the bourse’s top 100 companies. This is echoed by the census report released earlier, which shows that wealth disparities between race groups persists. In a 1998 parliamentary debate on reconciliation and nation building, then deputy president Thabo Mbeki correctly argued that ours is a country comprised of “two nations divided by deep inequalities”. As he so aptly put it:
“One of these nations is white, relatively prosperous, regardless of gender or geographic dispersal. It has ready access to a developed economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure. The second and larger nation of South Africa is black and poor, with the worst affected being women in the rural areas, the black rural population in general and the disabled. This nation lives under conditions of a grossly underdeveloped economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure. It has virtually no possibility to exercise what in reality amounts to a theoretical right to equal opportunity. ”
This reality, because it is happening in a dispensation that we believed would signal the emancipation of black people, has effectively sent our people deeper and deeper into a state of incomprehensible defeatism, believing not only in the permanence of injustice, but perhaps, even beginning to embrace it. And this is where Malema has been most effective: he first hurled that painful truth in our faces and proceeded to restore a fighting spirit back where it belongs, in the minds of our people. A people once defined by the nervous conditions of their existence, are today a people slowly awakening from that state. Because of the young man’s boldness, a rapture has slowly happened in the minds of our people who now understand that it is only through our contributions as activists that this source can be obliterated. The Economic Freedom March he led a year ago sent a message to young people that economic freedom will only happen through mobilisation and organisation.
He had faults and at times he displayed elements of crass materialism. But this pales in comparison to what he was able to accomplish. Malema transformed the most potent weapon in the hand of the oppressor: the mind of the oppressed. He made of it a questioning mind, a conscious mind and above all, a mind impatient with the status quo. Such potential cannot be thrown into the dustbin of history!