Brent Meersman
Brent Meersman

Julius Malema: Why he will be missed

Juju bashing isn’t as much fun as it used to be. If you type Malema into Google, the second suggestion the browser makes is “Malema jokes”. The latest one is that his girlfriend has twins and Malema is wondering which of them is his. I’m not entirely comfortable with such jokes; I know some people laughing have a racist tinge to their enjoyment — to them it fits in the category of “stupid Bantu” jibes.

Malema was poorly educated. Apartheid wrecked his primary education. The ANC did the rest. He has been raised by the party since he was eight years old. He is their end product.

But Malema is far from stupid. He is, however, often uncouth, even thuggish. He can also be charming. If I were still an arts manager, I’d want to sign him up yesterday. He could make a great career as a comedian, and I do not mean that in any deriding way. If you’re not convinced of his stand-up talents, look here. I’d pay for a ticket to see such a show.

As a performer he could flaunt his bling to his heart’s content. There would be celebrity appearances, stretch limousines and all-night parties. He could fill his belly with champagne. No more ill-gotten gains; he’d be legit.

Juju, you see, knows his lines and he tells home truths in an amusing way, enough to make the ANC senior leadership wince with embarrassment because he holds up to them a mirror for their hypocrisy and failures.

The problem is Malema thinks like a gangster; he doesn’t actually know how to play the game of politics. Politicians know it’s a game of Scrabble, and you need to be able to spell and score points by strategically placing your words. Malema took the Scrabble set and tried to play Snakes and Ladders with it. First he threw a few double sixes, then he slid to the bottom — for now at least.

Witness his repeated political flip flops: Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe was trashed, then hallowed; President Jacob Zuma hallowed then trashed; currently former president Thabo Mbeki is in for his second round of glorification, having been rubbished in between. Perhaps in his current disciplinary process Malema hopes the same will be done with him.

Where Malema was particularly thick (or naïve, though that doesn’t seem the right adjective for the richest little poor kid) was in his belief in the ANC’s bullshit. By bullshit I mean of course the national democratic revolution. Publically Malema took Zuma, the champion of the Polokwane resolutions, at his word, only to find out that the ANC is a party of mostly rhetoric.

Whatever its bluster, the ANC is at the bottom a culturally conservative, politically centre-right, economically neoliberal party. Given the likes of Malema as an alternative, many might be saying: “Long may it stay that way.” But they would be wrong. The socio-economic hell too many find themsevles in won’t go away until the ANC makes some fundamental shifts.

Which brings me to the real point of this particular blog. Malema was for a long time a very convenient youth when he helped sweep Zuma to power. Then again when he served the ends of the predatory elite. As Jeremy Cronin, just days ago, reiterated: nationalisation was a “debate driven, at least initially, by indebted BEE mining investors seeking a bail-out … it was also based on a particular version of the state — a bureaucracy that could be factionally and parasitically captured in order to advance specific private accumulation agendas” — a view which got him into a tit for tat spat with Malema a few years ago.

But then Malema overreached. His shenanigans kept eroding the ANC’s traditional containment strategy over factionalism; at one stage the public image of the ANC began to resemble that custard pie slapstick show called Cope.

Besides the charges levelled at Malema in the disciplinary hearing — valid charges but part of a deeply hypocritical process — he must take some responsibility for the failure of cohesion among the “coalition of the wounded” that brought Zuma to power. Imagine if the ANC Youth League had galvanised the left by making common cause with the alliance partners? Instead he offered the last thing anyone needs: African national socialism — Mugabe style.

Ironically, as convenient as Malema was for the ascendant in the ANC, so he has been almost as convenient a youth for all those colonial, imperialist, capitalist, apartheid beneficiaries Malema sees as ranked against him. Which is why he became a media creation – a sort of “Jihad Jane” or “Balloon Boy” or the guy in the Big Brother house everyone hated but loved to watch, anticipating the day he would finally be evicted.

For in Juju, his capitalist enemies have had a (news)paper tiger as opponent. He doesn’t actually speak for the poor, the landless or the youth. Instead he represents the aspirant political entrepreneurs of the party’s lower ranks and their zombie army; a brat who has turned distributive justice into nothing more than “the politics of the belly”.

He has brought the ANC into disrepute as a voice for the poor. A long history of abuse of power and serious corruption charges hang over him, with mounting evidence as the financial carnival of his home province Limpopo unravels where he and his cronies have exerted the most actual influence. In the eyes of many, he is utterly discredited.

Hence his failure to mobilise a mass base. As analyst Steven Friedman pointed out, there were twice as many people protesting about the state of our school libraries than turned up at Malema’s economic march.

He has allowed his enemies to simply point to corruption and cronyism as the real cause of service delivery failure in Limpopo and elsewhere. As he told the ANC Youth League at their Sandton convention: “There is no woodwork that is going to run economy”.

I still have confidence in our judicial process that — barring procedural mistakes, double agendas in the intelligence services, political cover-ups in the province, undue executive influence over the prosecuting authorities, and any incompetence by the investigators — Malema will be brought to a fair trial.

But here is the crux: the calls Malema made will no longer be so easy to dismiss once the straw man in whom they were conveniently located is gone. Malema became the story, not the issues, and that has been his greatest failing.

With a world economy in serious trouble, the prospects of addressing unemployment are dimming, and government’s current economic policies are unlikely to pass the stress test.

How will the political storm be managed when the jobs promised do not materialise? Will the nation’s unhappy youth and voiceless poor ever find credible representation? Or will our government and the private sector leave us to wait for the next Pied Piper?

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