Misunderstanding Malema

Fiona Forde says RW Johnson got it wrong on the ANCYL President

RW Johnson penned an 8,000-word feature this past week (see here and here) in which he tried hard to make sense of Julius Malema. And he has no doubt started a march that many more will follow, now that the word is out in foreign parts that all is not well in ANC land.

But despite Johnson's best efforts, he joins the dots in such a way as to distort the current frame and therefore holds up a portrait of a man and his political party that bear no real resemblance to reality, hinged as it is upon a narrative that is riddled with flaws.

To begin with, there is little point in likening Malema to the rabid rightwing French man Jean-Marie Le Pen or any other international radical figure that for matter. It might sound good and it will surely spark a lot of chat, but it is fundamentally wrong. Twinning Malema with bygone African leaders is just as futile, as is the exercise in trying to find his match amongst the Nats of old.

Sure, Malema is a rising nationalist strong-man on a march to nowhere good. Of that there is no doubt. But above all else he is a product of modern-day South Africa and its politics. And that's the surface one needs to probe and penetrate if any real understanding of Malema is to emerge. Get Malema right and the real problem becomes immediately apparent.

So forget about the Frenchman and the Zimbabwean dictator, and whatever other figure came to Johnson's mind. Look at Malema for what he is: a rising young thing in the century-old liberation movement, a 30-year-old who tramples on the toes of men and women twice his age as he steadies his way to the top. He trades on being the son of a single domestic worker, a fact he trots out every other day. Without a struggle credential to his name, he pounds the boards of the ANC stage from where he has been straight-talking to the masses these past few years, that critical constituency that have been left behind since 1994.

And it is little wonder that they latch on to his every word. For a while during his comeback campaign, Zuma pandered to them too. But he was quick to turn his back on them once he was safely ensconced in Union Buildings, when he began to court and create a new elite. Malema, one of the most notorious members of the elite, knew better than to leave the masses behind. So he began to play a clever double act, keeping one foot firmly on either side of the divide. Hence on the eve of the party's centenary love fest that is upon us, it is the junior partner who is emerging as the protagonist of the ANC, its poster cadre.

A remarkable rise? On paper, perhaps. But in reality not at all. Because the ANC of today is not the ANC under whose wing Malema fell captive in 1990. And that's a critical point and the one Johnson overlooks. The ruling party is now deeply divided and very, very weak. And it is that weakness that has allowed Malema to make his mark. But Johnson fails to differentiate between the ‘old' ANC and the ‘new'.

A strong and disciplined ANC would not have pandered to Malema the way Jacob Zuma's is doing today. Indeed, it is even unthinkable that Thabo Mbeki would have indulged him to this extent. And though Mbeki's ANC was not strong - it was, after all, under the Xhosa leader's watch that the party eventually fell apart - it did instill some degree of discipline among its members.

But that was then. And this is now. It's only been a few years yet look at the kind of possibilities ANC politics has brought in this short time. As one ANC chief recently put it, the ‘small' president is already beginning to dwarf the ‘big' president when it comes to power and standing. 

And yet it was only Malema who spotted the real opportunities that lay before him. Many of his comrades went for the money. He did too. But he also went for the power. And to ensure he could harness it fully, he went back in time, back to the 1940s, and began to re-write history to suit his aims and to write himself into the history books along the way.

He likened himself to the founders of the ANC Youth League, the likes of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, the greats of the struggle era. And he talked up their militancy to justify his own. In his next step he began to talk of the need for some young blood in the ranks of the ruling party, as his political forebears had done before him.

Then Malema swiftly moved on to the Freedom Charter and breathed new life back into what Johnson calls that old ‘constitution in the sky', the document he claims was no more than a ‘piece of propaganda' laden with a ‘mystical presence' because it was widely believed, says Johnson, that the prospect of freedom was a thing of fiction at that time hence the words contained in the charter were considered likewise.

Johnson goes on to argue that Malema, as the leader of the junior wing of the ANC "has no right to attend or speak when the Big Men of the alliance get together to thrash out the great questions of the day" so he decided to latch on to the Charter and use it as his big stick to drive policy instead.

But that too is fictitious. Does Johnson forget that the ANC is the centre of political power within the alliance, something that riles the other alliance partners to no end? And furthermore, as the head of the ANCYL, Malema is also a member of both the ANC's executive and working committees and sits around the big tables for all of the big talk, when the alliance partners do not. It is also true that he commands considerable support in those committees. Far from being on the outside looking in, Malema is a player.

And he does not give a hoot what may have been said about the Charter or who wrote it for matter. Johnson goes to great lengths to point out that it was written by two fine white 1950s Stalinists; Rusty Bernstein and Ben Turok.

So? That was 1955 and this is 2011 and Malema's only reason for dragging it out and dusting it off today is because he sees it as a killer calling card. He flags it in the name of ANC tradition. And as he well knows, tradition is no small thing in the ANC clan. And in leaning on tradition the way he does, Malema's reading of history has not failed him yet. 

Not surprisingly, though, Malema's great take on the past stops in 1955. The other monumental year, 1969, does not feature. How could it? It was the year that great attempts were made to stamp out the narrow nationalism that was seeping into the movement's ranks. But the narrow nationalist in Malema knows better than to go there.

So he conveniently sticks to that one era - the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s - instead, because it gives him all that he wants: the license to be militant; the best example of why injecting young blood into the ranks can be a good thing; and an old policy framework, vis-à-vis the Charter, to help him capture the masses.

Throughout his first term as ANCYL president, he rarely changed his tune, harping on at every turn about one or other of the three, if not all three. And with it, he built up an extraordinary profile. It was all part of his grand plan - to eventually take control of the ANC, something he finally put words on a few weeks back when the ANCYL conference came to a close. And as he started out on his second term it looked as if he was well and truly on track.

It's a prospect that frightens most minds, and understandably so. A future sketched out by Malema has doomsday writ large all over it. But lost in this latest chatter is the fact that this is but Malema's plan, the plan of the ‘new' ANC. We have yet to see the ‘old' ANC play their hand and fight back. There's time yet.

And caught up in this chatter is Johnson to some extent. In his attempt to portray the new big man of South Africa, he fails to situate Malema squarely in our midst, as he set out to do.

From some far away desk, he turned to a learned professor to get a scientific grip on Malema's following. Why he didn't go out and see for himself one can only wonder. There are two groups, he was told instead. The ‘highly ambitious and materialistic youth' and a second more politically connected group that comprise the ‘semi-well educated and more seriously aspirant'. But there was no mention of the masses. Another major point on which Johnson falls down.

But perhaps that is why he then goes on to present Malema as a "hollow man" who will be shattered by Jacob Zuma, the character who plays the wily and successful chief in Johnson's drama. To hammer home his point, he harks back to the ANC's national general council that took place in Durban last September. And he gives a detailed account of how the Zulu chief ‘out-maneouvred' and ‘out-witted' the Northern Sotho.

‘This is the Zuma style,' Johnson suggest and ‘thus far this strategy has worked'. And there Johnson trips himself up yet again because far from Malema falling in that Durban meeting he emerged victorious because what he did was to put the issue of nationalization on to the agenda. And it is a topic that hasn't left the arena of public debate ever since.

That's not even a year ago. Not even ten months. And then, Malema's critics couldn't give him the credit for what he had pulled off. But it is only in the last eight or so weeks - in the wake of the hate speech trial and his electioneering during the local government elections - that folk finally began to see Malema for what he is, captured aptly by Financial Mail editor Barney Mthombeni in two words: a conundrum.

Which part explains the talk and chatter that followed his re-election last month as folk began to contemplate a possible future in his shadow. The most startling statement of all was that made last week by Business Leadership South Africa, when they said it was high time that they sat with Malema & Co and engaged them on their calls for radical policy reform.

I appreciate their view that Malema is too large a figure to simply ignore. But no more than Johnson's, BLSA's words were woefully inappropriate. To send such a signal to Malema that it's time to talk is but another way of legitimizing his power, at an extraordinary level. And as argued above, that power only exists because the leadership of the ANC has all but collapsed and the ruling party is on its knees.

When it comes to talking policy, there's a government that was put in place to do that job. It's footed by each and every one of us tax payers and it is at the service of all of us who live here. And it ought never be sidelined in favor of the ruling party's junior party.

Sure, the fact that Malema is being called to the table is sending an equally strong message to Zuma: that he is no longer the big president, that he is lost control of the big debate. But that is where the discussion should focus, on the fact that the ruling elite is out for lunch, and that the country is running on auto pilot. And let the focus remain there until that void is addressed.

The country has only woken up to the Malema machine at the eleventh hour, and this is partly due to the fact that his place in society was never truly captured. Johnson is not the first to get him wrong. And he won't be the last. Nor were Malema's actions ever fully understood, even though the spotlight of public scrutiny hardly ever left his ample frame.

Like Johnson has made the mistake of doing, Malema was mainly looked upon as frighteningly radical leader of the youth. And though he still trades in that name, there is little about what Malema does that is ever really about the ANCYL. It's about a much bigger frame that he and his allies in the mother body have been busy shaping this past while.

So when Johnson takes his thinking to what he believes is the logical end and suggests that Malema was some whirlwind all this while and that he will surely run out of steam before too long, not least because of the Zulu kingdom upon which the wily Zuma now rests, an ethnic support base that is likely to keep Zuma in place for some time to come, he has well and truly veered off course. ANC politics is not about ethnicity. It's about the faction, the whole faction and nothing but the faction.

And that's where Malema can be found, not as the Northern Sotho or the president of the ANCYL but as the driver of one those very big ANC forces.

Fiona Forde is the author of the soon-to-be released ‘An Inconvenient Youth: Julius Malema and the ‘new' ANC'

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