Fear and Loathing in South Africa: The Malema Phenomenon

By Leonard Gentle · 31 Aug 2011

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Ah Julius Malema…everywhere else, the world is responding to the biggest crisis of capitalism since 1929 and the threat posed to democracy by the markets. NATO is overthrowing Gaddafi in the latest of the ebbs and flows of the Arab Spring; the indignant of Spain and Greece are rising up against austerity programmes; and global dominance is seeping away from a debt-ridden US.

The world is changing. So far there have been two responses that dominate public opinion: disengagement and reaction.

For many people the chief response is a kind of shutting down of curiosity and a turning inward, seeking solace in everything from religion, to “home entertainment,” to celebrity watching.

The second response is to find an easy scapegoat.

Both these responses have their South African equivalents, with all our local nuances.

Indifference and disengagement have, of course, a long history amongst the white middle classes, used to the luxury of home entertainment and celebrity watching in the comfort of their secure communities from the days of apartheid. They have recently been joined by their black counterparts more obsessed with flaunting their wealth than bothering to understand the challenges facing the world today.

But the seeking of scapegoats to blame is where South Africans really come into our own - striking workers, dysfunctional public services, the army of unskilled black work seekers...and Julius Malema! 

There are three ways of looking at this obsession with Malema. One view is that Malema and his ilk are the greatest threat to democracy. Therefore, the focus on Malema is necessary, lest he bring us all down. In this regard, we all should be cheering the ANC’s National Executive Committee for finally having the “cojones” to discipline the unruly youth league leader and hopefully make him go away. 

But is this focus on Malema justified?

For those who warily appraise Malema, his boorishness, his bodyguards and populist rhetoric, and who think that the nationalisation of our mines is just one step away from the state staking a claim to our homes, this is frightening. If Malema’s views prevail within the ANC, or he is a future president of the ANC, then, of course, the future is bleak.

So what about Malema as a future president of South Africa?

Nothing can be excluded, of course. Remember the trepidation around Jacob Zuma when he stood trial while his supporters sang “Umshini wami” outside the court? Well, he did get to become president of South Africa and the sky didn’t fall in. Zuma swapped his leopard skins for a three-piece suit, while the ANC technocrats kept the neo-liberal ship on even keel.

And what about the Youth League’s call for the nationalisation of mines - is the ANC about to bow down to a snotlap like Malema just because he makes a lot of noise?

This is the ANC of the neo-liberal macro-economic Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) Programme that has made the rand the most tradable currency in the world, that enthusiastically opened the door for our homegrown companies to relocate their primary stock listings abroad, that stared down the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) when it marched against privatisation, and whose finance minister now wants to make the labour market even more flexible.

This ANC is not going to nationalise the mines.

In Zuma’s fight against former president, Thabo Mbeki, he had a coalition of COSATU and the South African Communist Party (SACP) to march to Polokwane. The most active social force of protest over the last 10 years has been the township-based service delivery revolts. In all these the ANCYL has not only been absent, but the activists involved regard the ANCYL as indistinguishable from the corrupt councillors and the black economic empowerment (BEE) elite. 

Who then does Malema have behind him? A bunch of tenderpreneurs whose access to wealth is intimately tied to state largesse and its ethos of outsourcing, and who are paid for by BEE heavyweights that are not about to accept any stifling of opportunities to make money. 

Another view of the Malema phenomenon is that the whole fiasco is about the forthcoming 2012 elective conferences of the ANC, COSATU and the SACP. It’s the first time that all the “Alliance” partners are having these in the same year.  

The strange phenomenon of the so-called “left” within the Alliance, COSATU and the SACP, opposing the nationalisation of mines whilst the nationalist pro-capitalist ANCYL does the opposite, is all about the manoeuvring of various factions jockeying in favour of their various candidates for 2012.

ANC tradition forbids formal open campaigning, so it comes down to campaigning by proxy over who can appear more radical and claim the liberation credentials of the past. 

In this regard, the response of Zuma and other senior ANC leaders is not so much dithering or fear of Malema, but a patient strategy to give Malema and the ANCYL enough rope to hang themselves – which they appear to have done with their calls for an overthrow of the Botswana government. Then there are also the likely investigations into Malema’s business dealings by the Public Protector and the Hawks.      

So the Zuma/Mothlante faction can now emerge with all the moral authority of having the whole country behind them, as they seek to discipline Malema and remove him from the equation in 2012. The disciplining of Malema follows the pattern of other recent ANC disputes and characters deemed to be “populist” threats. Recall the disgrace of Tony Yengeni and the marginalisation of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Zuma would have fallen into this category too if he didn’t have COSATU, the SACP (and the Youth League) behind him.

Which brings us to a third view of the Malema phenomenon, and a much more serious one at this time - the threat posed to our democracy by the rallying of public indignation against the things that Malema has opportunistically espoused, “economic freedom” (in his words) and the defence of the moral legitimacy of the liberation struggle as a struggle for the transformation of the very fabric of South African society. Things that should be dear to us all and which can – unlike the people of the US and Britain, caught like fear-frozen guinea fowl in the headlights of the oncoming austerity juggernaut - actually prepare us to respond critically to the current global crisis.      

Let us take South Africa’s position in the world today. The economic crisis may be global, but its effects are manifested differently across the world. The epicentre is undoubtedly the US and the EU and these giants suck in everyone else with them. But China and India are still in a growth phase and their demand for resources continues even in the crisis.

As the debt burden weighs heavily in the US and the EU, and the dollar plummets, investors seek out gold as a safe haven and bonds in emerging markets where interest rates are relatively high. Without a radical new world order all countries will be dragged into the morass, but temporarily some countries, including South Africa (if only our government had the political will), are favourably positioned.        

The resources market has been booming until recently and gold is at record levels of more than $1600 dollars an ounce. South Africa is not only one of the most resources-rich countries in the world, it is still one of the top producers of gold. Yet gold production is down and almost 200 000 jobs have been lost in mining over the last 10 years. This is perverse.

As perverse is the privatised Sasol being able to make super-profits as a result of high global oil prices, without any developmental impact. And, South Africa’s booming bond markets are not producing opportunities for development either, but are, again perversely, dragging South Africa into greater foreign debt.

Studies by the Wits School of Economics and Business Studies have shown that whilst fixed capital investment is flat and declining, investment in finance markets is booming. While credit extension to the private sector increased by 22% over the last 10 years, private sector business investment only went up by 5%. In other words, firms are borrowing and ploughing profits not into fixed investment but in volatile, unregulated, finance markets.         

So, there is an urgent case to be made for regulating investment and for forms of higher taxation. For instance, the 40% tax being proposed by the Australian government and the super tax on Sasol, which was an original ANC Polokwane resolution alongside nationalisation.

These are things that should be dear to us all and which should inspire us to respond critically to the current global crisis. Instead a call goes out for Zuma to deal with Malema and the ANCYL. And what is their crime? Calling for nationalisation, defying the decisions of the parent body, accusing whites of stealing the land, and trying to open up the succession debate in the ruling party.

Surely one of the millstones around the neck of South Africa’s failed democracy is the ANC’s ban on internal canvassing and the right to publicly dissent. The right of the ANCYL to openly promote their views and to campaign for their choice of ANC leaders should be defended by all democrats and should not be compromised by this association with Malema. Even the “heinous” crime of speaking out against Botswana’s affairs should be a democratic right. If the ANCYL had defied Mbeki’s soft diplomacy on Zimbabwe would we not have saluted their courage?

What holds back public debate in South Africa is the dead weight of white entitlement in the media, both print and television. Anything faintly redistributive is simply attacked. Any acknowledgment of the violence of apartheid is simply “dragging us backwards.” Any reference to the liberation struggle is stigmatised as racist by association.

This is guilt by association - if you believe in nationalisation and if you feel black newspaper editors are simply sucking up to their white owners, then you are probably corrupt, dishing out tenders to chums and most likely racist and misogynistic.

One doesn’t have to agree with the vulgarity and arrogance of the Malema’s and Kenny Kunene’s of this country to point out the hypocrisy involved in these nouveau riche blacks having to suffer media opprobrium while their older white counterparts – the Donald Gordons, the Oppenheimers, the Ruperts, etc., are lauded.

Meanwhile ex-Eskom finance manager, turned international businessman, Mick Davis, heading up Xstrata (which just happens to have a cosy sweetheart deal to get low electricity prices from Eskom) is hailed as the kind of international investor we all need to be courting. All of these people owe their wealth to government largesse and apartheid forced labour.   

What doesn’t help is the sheer lack of moral backbone on the part of erstwhile “progressive thinkers” to say anything different – to assert the moral necessity of redistribution unequivocally in the free battle of ideas - against this stifling conformity bolstered by white entitlement and black fear.

Across the crisis-ridden world there is an alternative to indifference and reactionary scape-goating. It’s called direct engagement and political mobilisation. We have witnessed its success in toppling seemingly immovable regimes like Mubarak in Egypt and ben Ali in Tunisia. We have seen the spread of public protests against the dictatorship of the markets from Greece to Spain to Italy and now even Israel. 

In Spain recent occupations of public spaces saw levels of public debate and engagement that shamed the parties in Spain’s parliament, as examples of democracy. In Greece, the spirit of classical Athens has been revived in the form of the assemblies of the disgruntled, converting public anger about IMF and European Central Bank imposed austerity measures into debates about whether Greece should default, abandon the Euro or fight for a public debt audit. In Italy (for decades now a caricature of democracy), a public referendum delivered an overwhelming “no” to Berlusconi’s privatisation programme. Even the London riots are primordial acts of people beginning to express their rage at Britain’s growing inequality and its compliant politicians.

And, one is starting to hear ideas from the most unlikely quarters. EU politicians have begun to raise the need to ban the rating agencies, some EU countries have banned naked short selling – that most pernicious of derivatives - while Sarkozy even calls for a financial transactions tax. None of these suggestions will get to be implemented by the current politicians because they are all in hock to the speculators. But the clamour for taming the markets is beginning to be heard.

Meanwhile in South Africa what is being prepared amongst those who battle for public opinion is not a challenge to capitalism in its deepest crisis, but a turning against any possibility of transcending it. Here this takes form, not in a flourishing of the imagination and critical thinking at a time when it has never been more desperately required, but in a targeting of scapegoats and easily identifiable miscreants.

Gentle is the director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG), an NGO that produces educational materials for activists in social movements and trade unions.

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Santhan Naidoo
31 Aug

Before My Eyes Started to Get Droopy

I've been around the sun 33 times and have yet to encounter a "white" or "black" human being during my travels from continent to continent, country to country. Oh please, tell me where I may find one!

When will we step out of this conditioned approach of seeing in black and white, into seeing instead the abundant diversity in cultures and people of our world. How many distinct cultures are there amongst the native tribes of Southern Africa? Is it conditioning or lack of care, when we put a person of Khoisan heritage and a person of isiZulu heritage into one box labeled black? Or how about putting someone from the Afrikaner culture and a second generation Portuguese South African citizen into a box called white?

"Yet gold production is down and almost 200 000 jobs have been lost in mining over the last 10 years. This is perverse." - I'm sure gold is not really "produced" by the mining companies. Gold is extracted from a finite source. Like all things finite, one eventually hits the bottom. It's not perverse that people are out of jobs from trying to suck more out of something that there is less of, it's natural law. Perhaps the perversity is in how we can allow ourselves to continuously plunder the land for said metal and attach so much value to it.

Brother this is an old story, a badly sung tune in a karaoke bar dressed up in the sound effects of intellectual window dressing. How about something simple, freshly squeezed and pure?

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