The sneering antipathy and moral condescension of seemingly the entire South Africa towards Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for the United States presidency, makes me chuckle. We are, after all, the nation that elected Jacob Zuma – a man who is as morally dubious and certainly far less competent than Trump – to our own highest office.
Not once. Twice.
Since then there has been a litany of failures, the most recent of them Zuma being credibly accused of abusing his presidential powers, as well as being found by the Constitutional Court to have betrayed his oath of office. Yet most African National Congress supporters will likely again in the August local government elections vote for the organisation that put this political disaster into presidential orbit.
In contrast, the Trump phenomenon – as well as the equally unexpected support among Democratic Party supporters for Bernie Sanders – is rooted in national political disillusionment and disaffection with establishment elites. It’s a genuine search for alternatives and at least it is pretty much certain that if the majority of American voters do experience the neural short-circuit necessary for Trump to be elected in November, they will learn from the experience and won’t repeat the mistake four years later.
Trump, however, is more accurately compared not with Zuma, but with Economic Freedom Front leader Julius Malema. For the ANC, the Republican and Democratic parties are viewed as elites that control webs of nepotism and cronyism, and both Trump and Malema are outsiders who want to topple the existing order.
They also share personality traits. Democratic Party front-runner Hillary Clinton this week called Trump a “bully” and a “loose cannon”. Malema has often been similarly described across the South African political spectrum, including by disillusioned former comrades.
Both men are abrasive and rude. Both resort readily to racist and sexist insults.
Mexican immigrants to the US are drug smugglers, killers and rapists, according to Trump. And Fox News’s Megyn Kelly challenged Trump on this during one of the debates: “You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs’, ‘dogs’, ‘slobs’ and ‘disgusting animals’.” Trump simply laughed it off, calling Kelly a “bimbo”.
So Clinton will be braced for a torrid time. A recent Trump tweet sets the tone: “If Hillary can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?”
But when it comes to abusing opponents, Malema has the edge. Former Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille was “a white madam” and the party’s former leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, her “tea lady”. Echoing the parlance of the Rwanda genocide, Zille and her supporters were “cockroaches” that had at all costs to be kept from winning power.
Both Malema and Trump are driven by ambition, rather than motivated by ideology. That is why they struggle to operate within the confines of a collective, where individual interests often have to be sacrificed to the greater good.
Consequently, Malema turned the ANC Youth League into his personal fiefdom and did enormous reputational and organisational damage to the party itself. The EFF, too, has had to operate in the shadow of Malema’s ego.
Trump so alienated the Republican hierarchy that the #NeverTrump hashtag became emblematic of an anti-Trump obsession that shaped the strategy of all the other challengers for the nomination. It also means that despite winning the nomination, Trump approaches the election with swathes of Republican voters at this stage swearing blind that they will not vote for him, not even in preference to the loathed Clinton.
And therein lies a critical difference between that long-established democracy and our young one.
Although the Republican Party will regroup and coalesce, sort of, behind Trump’s presidential bid, it did everything possible to thwart it. Not simply because Trump is a party outsider, but because many genuinely believe that he is a dangerous choice to lead the US.
In contrast, the ANC’s top leadership, to its everlasting shame, nurtured Malema’s fascism when he was still a party member. His tirades went unrebuked, his threats of violence went unchallenged, his racism and sexism went unremarked upon.
It is only now, following his expulsion and Malema turning his demagoguery to devastating effect against them, that the ANC has suddenly developed a concern for constitutional and ethical niceties. It is only now, with Malema threatening to remove Zuma’s government “through the barrel of a gun” that the ANC is voicing outrage and demanding police investigations of incitement to violence and treason.
Another important difference between the two countries is that the American media is fiercely critical. That is more than can be said for most of the SA media.
While Zuma undoubtedly deserves the relentlessly bad press he gets, it should be compared with the relatively easy ride that Malema gets. Like children watching a comedy act, the media is mostly in delighted thrall to Malema’s every outrageous move, rather than carrying out the Third Estate’s duty of unpacking the imminent danger the EFF poses to our democracy.
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