Malema hype is a symptom of middle-class fear

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

If winning elections depended on impressing journalists and commentators, Julius Malema would be president next year. Since it requires gaining the support of voters, he will be lucky if he makes it into Parliament.

Signs that Malema may form a party have attracted attention in social and mainstream media: again we are asked to believe that he will head an unstoppable political force, which says far more about the state of the debate than political reality.

One reason for deep scepticism about a party headed by Malema is that parties need money and it is hard to see where he will find the cash he needs. When he was president of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, his bank account seemed awash with money from supporters. But, then, Malema was useful to his backers. Now he is not.

When he was in the ANC, Malema was helpful to some senior politicians and politically connected businesspeople. For the politicians, he offered a potential route to business resources. When Malema said things that alarmed investors, senior politicians in his camp could approach business and present themselves as moderate alternatives who needed backing.

For the businesspeople, his "nationalisation" proposal offered the possibility of off-loading poorly performing mining assets at the taxpayer’s expense and using a state mining company’s power to hand out mining licences to demand that companies give them plum assets if they wanted permission to mine.

A Malema in opposition making vague promises of "economic freedom" offers no such benefits. At most, he may attract some funding from interests who want to test the water in case they are forced to leave the ANC. But this would not be enough to fuel a growing party.

Another reason people may be reluctant to bankroll a Malema party is that they know it won’t win many votes.

There is no evidence Malema has much voter support. His marches drew at most 5,000 people, substantially fewer than those who attended the annual gay pride parade, and half the amount mobilised by a nongovernmental organisation pushing for school libraries. His removal from the ANC triggered celebration in shack settlements and townships, particularly in Limpopo, where many people associate him with making money out of tenders for substandard public services.

If we want a sense of why poor people do not see him as their champion, Malema was once asked by a TV interviewer how he came to own two large houses. He responded that, like any other young person in South Africa, he used his first salary cheque to buy houses.

He seemed unaware that most young people here do not get salary cheques at all and that those who do are hardly in a position to buy houses. A politician so cut off from the lives of the poor is unlikely to win their support.

Malema may not even have been good at winning votes among ANC activists. His first election as youth league president was challenged by most of its provinces, his second was unopposed after strong-arm tactics were used on his challengers. In his final test of support, an election for the ANC’s Limpopo executive, he came 17th in his provincial stronghold, near the bottom of the 20 candidates elected.

There is a gap in our politics to the left of the ANC. But Malema cannot fill it: he has no support among the poor and no sense of how to speak for people at the grass-roots. Those who lost out at Mangaung may leave the ANC and form a new party. But Malema is incapable of leading them — his role has been to listen to senior ANC politicians in his camp, not to tell them what to do.

Given this, why does the prospect of a Malema-led party get so much attention? One answer is that political journalists are entranced by him — writing about Malema is much more fun than bothering to read the National Development Plan. And continued fixation with social media means that someone with dozens of supporters on Facebook and Twitter can seem immensely popular when he is not.

But there is one more reason. Many middle-class people harbour deep fears that a majority-ruled South Africa cannot prosper. One aspect of this fear is the expectation that a demagogue will arise who will whip the poor into a frenzy of retribution, urging them to seize the goods of those who have what they lack.

This fear is ignited whenever anyone in the ANC begins using militant language: because it runs very deep, no one bothers to ask if they really enjoy support. This is why Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was portrayed as popular when polls gave her 1% support and why Malema’s popularity is so vastly inflated. And why the next politician who uses heated rhetoric while living very well indeed will get much the same reaction.

The fears that produce the Malema hype are important — they tell us why events here are sometimes greeted by panic. But they are symptoms of a problem, not a guide to understanding.


Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.

Source: Business Day