In SA, as in most of Africa, a struggle of epic proportions has been raging between the “haves” and “have-nots”, this in a world where we are told no-one owes anyone anything. It is a dangerous world because the “haves” have much and are few and the “have-nots” lack much and are plentiful. It has always been a recipe for disaster. It is after all the scourge that plagues all unequal societies.
Democracy, and the rule of law it enshrines, has always been touted as the mechanism to hold together the fragile truce between the “haves” and “have-nots”. But it is nowhere near a guarantee. It is an assumption at best and you know what they say about assumptions.
The polarising effects of the economic gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” have always been crying out for a hero to save the day, so to speak. It is against this background that desperate men seek desperate measures.
Desperation has been the staple of the “have-nots”, who struggle unseen on the margins of society. In seeking redress from historical injustices and present-day poverty, the poor either turn to men of God or politicians for solutions.
It is no coincidence then that radical political elements thrive in desperate times. They thrive because they are masters in the act of owning the pain and suffering of the downtrodden. You can call it political empathy but really it is nothing more than opportunism veiled as empathy. As a gimmick, it works very well. It works precisely because desperate people are vulnerable to political messiahs who promise to deliver them from oppression and lead them to the Promised Land.
For about four years now, the down and out have looked to Julius Malema with ardent fervour — like believers of the gospel look to the Messiah. Malema managed to capture their hearts and minds and gave them hope. His believers have drawn much encouragement from his rhetoric. They have sung and marched with him in the name of economic freedom. Some say they would have died for him if necessary and still others fervently await his resurrection from the political wilderness to complete the task at hand.
But at this point in time Malema does not seem to be the political messiah. Instead he has been shown to be more of an enterprising politician who, in the name of the people, sought to be a kingmaker in the ANC. Here was a young radical who purportedly championed the cause of the poor but lived the life of the rich. A politician who sought greatness by extending to SA a radical policy, one that nearly destroyed Zimbabwe. It was a policy born out of anger, frustration and despair at the painstakingly slow pace of transformation and the continued marginalisation of previously disadvantaged groups from the mainstream economy. It was a policy that sought to speedily rectify economic injustices through the exercise, some believe, of unjust political power. It is, what history will record as, Mugabeism.
When Robert Mugabe began the process of indigenising the economy of Zimbabwe, using tactics and methods that attracted the ire and condemnation of many around the world, very few could conceive that his brand of policies had a chance of catching on elsewhere. And yet in calling for “expropriation without compensation”, Malema emerged as one of the strongest proponents of Mugabeism, much to the anxiety of the “haves”. For the “have-nots”, Mugabeism appears to be the only way to reclaim their dignity and find economic prosperity.
It is what it is; people believe what they want to believe. Most importantly they believe a compelling message regardless of the preacher. Malema preached Mugabeism to SA and held the nation in the powerful sway of this seductive gospel, which promises much but like most things in politics, has the potential to disappoint on a catastrophic scale.
Mugabe’s latter-day ideologies have found a tipping point in Malema. Though the messenger has now been muzzled, there is no denying that the message has been preached and the converts have been many. Indeed, the converts number in the millions and for as long as there are the fertile grounds of despondency, disillusionment and desperation, Mugabeism, which has now firmly taken root, will continue to thrive.
It is said that the mind once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas can never shrink back to its original size. Those ideas need not necessarily be good. They only need to be compelling regardless of the danger they pose. In Mugabeism, the poor of SA have placed their trust and pinned their hopes. The “haves” will shudder knowing they cannot stop the power of an idea whose time has come. Anyone who comes in the name of Mugabeism, even a resurrected Malema himself, will be listened to and followed.
The rationale of any gospel is to bring good news to those accustomed to what is bad and ugly; those yearning for change from conditions they deem undesirable. In preaching Mugabeism, Malema successfully sowed the belief in the hearts of many that poverty and economic marginalisation could be gotten rid of by applying a policy that ironically seeks to build something new through the destruction of the old and which in destroying the old, sometimes threatens the very livelihoods of the those who yearn for a better future.