Must we take Julius Malema seriously?

John Kane-Berman warns that if there is no strong push back against racist utterances, the ideas behind them will take root

One of the most harmful things the media could do to Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), would be to ignore him. That would be wrong for at least two reasons. One is that he is an MP and party leader so that the public has the right to know what he says. The second is that he knows how to make news, and for the media to ignore him would be cutting off its nose to spite its face. 

Must he be taken seriously, however? Flip Buys, chairman of the Solidarity movement, recently pointed out that Mr Malema had taken a heavy beating in the nationwide municipal elections in August, and that his protest march early in November had been a failure. "Ranting and raving" was his only weapon. Therefore it was best not to panic.  

By contrast, the FW de Klerk Foundation said that the many people who dismissed Mr Malema's comments as "the rantings of an infantile political leader" were wrong. His party was the third largest in Parliament and his "racist comments" reflected its "considered policy". To suggest that whites, with Mr de Klerk in the lead, had stolen the land of the black majority was an extremely dangerous idea that was "stirring up racial polarisation and tension". 

While Mr Buys is right to enjoin against panic, the De Klerk Foundation is also correct to warn against stirring up polarisation. If racist utterances are not condemned or ridiculed, the ideas behind them will take root. Mr Malema is not merely the buffoon he sometimes appears to be but a product of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), in which he may one day again hold office. Racist utterances are no bar to high office in that party.    

Mr Malema's overtly racist sentiments are already echoed on various campuses, sometimes in vulgar form by students, sometimes under a veneer of academic jargon. Keeping track of all of this is tedious, but the so-called "Fallist" movement has already won a battle against the National Treasury's attempts to rein in public spending. It has also made major inroads against the intellectual freedom to which our universities are supposedly committed. 

One of the weapons used by that movement is violence. This included destroying property worth almost R1 billion. Among its leaders are admirers of Adolf Hitler, whose path to power included ranting and raving. Hitler threatened to kill Jews in revenge for supposedly provoking Britain and other countries to declare war against Germany. Mr Malema threatens to slaughter whites if they do not return the land supposedly stolen from blacks in the course of genocide supposedly committed against them.

One should always be wary of drawing parallels between the crimes of the Nazis and anyone else, other than the governments that systematically slaughtered people on a similar scale elsewhere in Europe, as well as in Asia and Africa. Yet great evils always have small beginnings, often in the form of inflammatory speech.       

However, one does not have to go as far as drawing such parallels to recognise the dangers posed by the EFF and its leader. It is enough that he routinely utters remarks calculated to inflame racial tensions. He does so, moreover, despite the fact that South Africa has made a successful transition from minority to majority rule and that there is probably less racial tension here than there is in the US or in various European countries.

He is also strengthened by a following wind. This is because large sections of the media assist the ANC in creating the impression that remarks by people such as Penny Sparrow are the real problem. But whereas Ms Sparrow apologised for her outburst, Mr Malema is as brazenly unapologetic as Donald Trump. Her racist remarks were thoughtless, Mr Malema's are calculated. To what end they are made is not yet clear. 

*John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think-tank promoting political and economic freedom.