Economic Freedom Front leader Julius Malema sees himself as today’s political kingmaker and a likely future leader of South Africa.
These are not delusions. Over the past few years these have become perfectly realisable ambitions. His party may have less than seven percent of the vote, but despite its featherweight credentials, it is boxing comfortably in the heavyweight division.
Malema has defined the African National Congress’s policy agenda on land expropriation without compensation and has orchestrated its retreat on free tertiary tuition. Malema has tied the Democratic Alliance into coalition knots in Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg and Tshwane, occasionally loosening the rope merely to hang the DA out to dry.
He may be a misogynistic, racist, rabble-rouser but he is also the single person most responsible for the ousting of former president Jacob Zuma. He is deluded, destructive, and dangerous, but may also hold in his hands the future of Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, and the “new dawn” that Ramaphosa proclaimed.
In a divided ANC, it is Malema’s policies and posturing that resonate most readily with the nationalistic hard-left that Ramaphosa seems to be trying to placate. Such appearances may, of course, be deceptive. Ramaphosa, reputedly a master tactician, may yet have up his sleeve a magical solution to the conundrum of how he is going to reconcile the ANC’s land expropriation populism with maintaining food security and avoiding a property asset-led financial collapse.
Malema, with complete assurance, holds the centre stage. When SA looks into its heart of darkness, it is Malema that we see.
Despite the massive progress made since that earlier “new dawn”, the one in 1994, SA remains divided by race, ethnicity and class, confounded by impossible expectations and a lack of simple solutions. But as in a floundering 1930s Germany, there is one voice, Malema, who has a confident answer. And, as it was then, the proposed solution is the seizure of private property and the scapegoating of minorities.
Even by his own toxic standards, Malema is becoming ever more vitriolic.
Eighteen months ago, Malema declared “We are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at least for now.” In the past week, he has spoken of “cutting the throat of whiteness” in the ousting of Nelson Mandela Bay Mayor Athol Trollip: “We going for your white man … we are going to cut the throat”.
As with other fascists, Malema is not picky when it comes to ethnic targeting. Also last week, he stated: “Chinese are like Indians. They think they're close to whiteness. When they practice racism they even become worse than whites. There are even Blacks who mimic whiteness. All of this needs to be confronted.”
Malema gets away with such behaviour because of a number of factors. His antics have been facilitated by a naïve and indulgent media, by cowardly government institutions, by ineffectual law enforcement, and by gullible politicians who place their personal ambitions ahead of the national interest.
It is, however, futile to lay the blame for Malema’s thinly veiled threats and incitement at the door of the media and to expect journalists to deprive Malema of the oxygen of publicity, as some commentators suggest. Ours is a predominantly lowbrow media, motivated less by truth and balance than by “trending” sensationalist entertainment.
These media house employees – one really cannot call them journalists – have licence to embellish and provoke because controversy drives website clickthroughs. An example is eNCA’s Nicholaus Bauer’s recent self-confessed fantasy of white rightwingers waving the old SA flag at anti-farmer killing demonstrations. None of these factors is going to change anytime soon.
Rather, the solution lies in the law. As with the citizen activism that thwarted state capture, sidelined Zuma, turned the Guptas into fugitives and brought Bell Pottinger, KPMG and McKinsey’s to their knees, it lies in civil society doing what the state lacks the capacity and/or resolve to do.
The Human Rights Commission has proved to be scarily remorseless at taking on racist estate agents mouthing off about crowded beaches. Taking on racist politicians threatening genocide? Not so much. Sustained citizen pressure and court applications, though, can be used to force the HRC to do its job.
Parliament has a code of conduct that requires MPs to behave ethically and within the bounds of the SA constitution. The committee that is supposed to enforce compliance has been until now a toothless tiger, but again, if there were sufficient pressure from MPs of all parties, this could change.
It is clear from the Zupta saga that the law enforcement agencies act against the transgressions of the politically connected only when it suits the ANC. But prosecutions can and have been be forced by activists bringing imaginative court applications, or by dint of private prosecutions.
Unchecked, Malema’s race politics will destroy SA. There are democratic mechanisms that can be used to prevent this, but South Africans will have to find the courage to confront the bully.
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