Not everyone who criticises elites is a populist. Those who draw a lazy equivalence between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump fail to recognise that populists don’t stop at protesting against Wall Street or ‘globalism’. Rather, populists claim that they and they alone speak in the name of what they tend to call the ‘real people’ or the ‘silent majority’. This claim to a moral monopoly of representation has two consequences that are immediately deleterious for democracy. Populists accuse all other political contenders of being illegitimate.
It has become seemingly impossible to have any kind of logical and level-headed discussion about Julius Malema. Because he is a master politician (although obviously not intellectually gifted, principled or – heaven knows – humble or poor), he has managed to create a political persona that inoculates him against criticism, attack and possible exposure as a charlatan. By launching his populist campaign for the nationalisation of the mines and the expropriation of white people’s property without compensation, Malema has cleverly bought some political insurance against criticism and/or possible exposure as a corrupt, dishonest and hypocritical champagne socialist.
Given our apartheid history, the continued gap between the (mostly, but not exclusively, white) upper middle classes and the (mostly, but not exclusively, black) poor, the seeming inability of the post-1994 government to create a more just and safe society, and the effects of economic and political choices (especially choices regarding education and unemployment) which have made it very difficult if not impossible for most of the poorest 50% of young South Africans ever to climb out of poverty in an honest and legal way, any politician reckless or clever enough to use brutal, racialised and militant language to describe the unjust nature of our society was always going to become popular with a vocal and political active group within the ANC. This group might not represent the majority of South Africans, but it is a vocal, active and influential group that will help to protect Malema against his enemies within and outside the ANC.
The fact that Malema has also proposed “solutions” that he claims will address the continued injustice in our society, further assists him in creating the persona which will – at least for some very vocal and powerful people – continue to trump any other considerations about his private life and the sources of his wealth. At the same time he has made many enemies amongst white people who hate and fear him for singing songs about Boers and for generally “not knowing his place as a black man”.
And having this group as enemies is a political plus for a person like Malema. Even people who would otherwise be level-headed would be hard-pressed to be seen to be on the same side as Afriforum for fear of being branded as coconuts or racists. So, don’t count Mr Malema out yet. He is down but not out because he can rely on those who will support him no matter what because their support would be seen as defending Malema AGAINST the white racists fearful of the creation of a more just society.
Who cares, such people might say, whether Malema took bribes to facilitate tenders? Who cares if tenders were inflated, houses were not built, services were not delivered, all because some businessmen “donated” a few million Rand here and there to Malema? If he did take the money, good for him! He is saying what other politicians are all too scared, intimidated or stupid to say. And his solutions – while they may well be economically disastrous – feel emotionally just and correct.
Why think with your head when the daily grind of your existence – the struggle to feed your family, to pay school fees for a third rate education of your children – continues to humiliate you? When your dignity – supposedly guaranteed by the South African Constitution – is infringed on a daily basis because of your economic depravation and the ongoing racism and racial discrimination that confronts you at work, in shops and on the streets? Why not indulge in a bit of a revenge fantasy by cheering on Julius Malema’s every outrageous and supposedly radical statement?
When you see the white madams in their 4x4s – their dyed platinum hair flowing over their shoulders, their manicured nails clutching the latest cellphone models, their Gucci shoes shining – when you see them dropping off their blond children at expensive private schools where they will be educated for high-paying jobs in Sydney and London, you might cheer on Julius Malema because if his proposals were accepted, these madams would suffer at least a little bit (“I mean, only one trip a year to London, doll! What is the world coming to, I tell you!”) and their children would not get the education that would allow them to continue their millionaire lifestyles.
Now anybody who wishes to engage in an honest and sincere manner with Mr Malema’s actions, words or allegations levelled against him, who wishes to weigh the veracity of the allegations regarding the alleged corrupt activities of Julius Malema in an even-handed and sober manner to determine whether these allegations are all part of a smear campaign or whether Malema is indeed deeply corrupt, have a hard time being heard in certain circles because Julius has managed to change the terms of the conversation. While the media and the chattering-class pundits and commentators like myself, scream blue murder about the allegations of corruptions levelled against Malema, others might well ignore our high-minded appeals to facts and principles.
Facts and evidence and criminality, these things are all irrelevant – except for those of us in the chattering classes, people who read or write Blogs and earn a decent living and read books about Kant and Foucault and eat out at nice Restaurants and stay in leafy suburbs whose streets are still being cleaned by the same mothers and fathers who did this work during apartheid. What is relevant is the faux radical utterances of Malema because although you cannot eat these utterances they do make you feel better.
This has been Mr Malema’s brilliance: with his “Kill the Boer” song and his “Bloody agent!” rant and his alleged anti-white utterances Malema has managed to turn every question about his honesty, his possible criminality, his hypocrisy, into a question about the injustices still suffered by a majority of South Africans. Those of us who question Malema’s actions are easily going to be dismissed, by some at least, who are going to say that we are using facts and principles to protect our own interests.
That is why it is so difficult to focus on the principles involved in this case without falling back on emotional platitudes and invective, invective and platitudes which will differ depending on whether one is a great fan of Mr Malema or whether one fears and loathe him. Either he is innocent no matter what the facts might say (if you are emotionally drawn to Malema’s quick-fix solutions for our problems), or (if you cheered on Afriforum when it brought the hate speech complaint against him), Malema will be guilty no matter what facts might or might not have been proven.
As someone who has been lambasted by more conservative elements in our society for consistently argueing that the hate speech accusations levelled at Malema was distracting us from more serious questions and that it was politically disastrous to have brought this hate speech complaint against him because it merely help to inoculate him against criticism, what I see now is the chickens of Afriforum coming home to roost.
It might be that Malema is innocent, and that he is not guilty of corruption. Maybe as we speak he is meeting with lawyers to instruct them to sue City Press for alleging that he was deeply corrupt. But maybe he is corrupt as alleged, in which case those of us in the chattering classes who worry about the corruption that has seeped into our politics and the effect of this on service delivery and the quality of our democracy are going to start despising him even more while his hard-core supporters will stand outside courtrooms and sing that they will kill and die for Malema.
That, I say again, is Malema’s brilliance. No matter what happens, for some it will never be about weighing up the facts and coming to a sober decision on whether Malema is a corrupt hypocrite or a real champion of the poor. Those who will assume that he is guilty, no matter what the facts, are politically irrelevant for Malema. But if he is corrupt, he would need an army of supporters for whom the facts matters not one bit. His campaign of the past year – aided by Afriforum and racist elements in our society – has managed to produce such an army.BACK TO TOP