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Bad Juju

The Mandela years are well and truly over. Now, sharp-suited Mugabe fan Julius Malema has the people’s ear

17 September 2011

12:00 AM

17 September 2011

12:00 AM

The Mandela years are well and truly over. Now, sharp-suited Mugabe fan Julius Malema has the people’s ear

It is spring here in Johannesburg, and in the spring, one’s thoughts turn to throttling Jonny Steinberg, a newspaper columnist who would have us believe that Julius Malema is about to be expelled from the ruling African National Congress for daring to speak ‘the truth’. Malema is the ANC youth leader presently fighting for his political life at an intra-party disciplinary hearing, and Steinberg is a normally rational fellow who seems to have lost his bearings while trying to pin down a fairly tricky idea. It is true, for instance, that South Africa is full of poor and hungry black people who might believe Malema when he promises to solve their woes by seizing land and other assets from the white enemy. But this is not ‘the truth’. Over the last 50 years, dozens of African leaders have set out to do exactly what Malema envisions, and the outcome has always been misery, backwardness and starvation.

It is hard to fault Malema for failing to mention such things in his rabble-rousing speeches. He is a poorly educated young man and might, for all I know, actually believe his own propaganda. He certainly professes faith in the doctrines of Marx and Lenin, and has lately taken to wearing a rakish beret in the style of Che Guevara. ‘Cuban revolutionaries should be saluted,’ he declared the other day. ‘Because of their ideological clarity and willingness to fight, millions were liberated from colonial subjugation.’

His followers love this stuff, but then they too are poorly educated and unlikely to know that the average monthly wage in Cuba is $20 — about what an illiterate Johannesburg gardener earns in a single day. If truths such as this could be more widely disseminated, Malema would be laughed at. But South Africa’s underclass is linguistically and culturally impregnable to the interventions of white men, so all that remains for us is to rant in pages such as these.

So then, let’s hear it for Julius Malema, a chubby 30-year-old who hails from the small town of Polokwane, where he was raised by an impoverished single mother who worked as a maid in an Indian businessman’s kitchen, a distinction seldom mentioned when Malema tells adoring fans that ‘they made our mothers into slaves’. For Malema, ‘they’ are always the whites, the ones who ‘stole our land’, the ones who are ‘criminals, and should be treated that way’. Malema is a great fan of Robert Mugabe, the despot who drove white farmers out of Zimbabwe (and in the process reduced his country to abject penury). He also admires Mugabe’s ‘indigenisation’ programme, which seeks to confiscate a 50 per cent interest in Zimbabwe’s remaining white-owned businesses, and advocates the nationalisation of South Africa’s mines and farms, a step which he claims will lead to ‘economic freedom’ for the long-suffering black masses.

It would be easier to swallow all this if Malema were an austere revolutionary, harrowed to skin and bone by heroic feats of self-sacrifice. He poses as such a figure, but in person, he resembles nothing so much as a capitalist porker grown fat on shady dealings. As president of the ANC’s Youth League, his take-home pay is around £3,600 a month — a comfortable middle-class income in South African terms, but nowhere near enough to explain his endlessly proliferating assets. According to Fiona Forde, an Irish journalist who’s just published a book about him, Malema owns several nice properties in his hometown, a farm, a £1.4 million mansion in Johannesburg, a wardrobe of designer suits and accessories that run to Breitling wristwatches ($17,000) and Louis Vuitton manbags. He told Forde that his income consists largely of gifts from friends, who also offer him free use of their luxury cars. She suspects that these friends are actually compensating him for ‘introductions’ to bureaucrats who dish out government tenders.

I could continue in this vein, but I’d better shut up, because Malema loves reducing whites to apoplexy. In fact, white rage is the fuel that has powered his rise to national prominence: the more we attack him, the more credible he seems in the eyes of his gullible followers, who are encouraged to believe that selfish whites will go to almost any lengths to sabotage his campaign for social justice. In this respect, he is an uncannily skilled politician, capable of turning almost any situation to his own advantage. A few years ago, in a fit of populist dudgeon, he described opposition leader Helen Zille as a ‘racist little girl’ who was indiscriminately sleeping with all her male colleagues. When white South Africa erupted in fury, he turned to his followers and said, see — they’re racist.

Fiona Forde says Malema is actually a nice chap in person, a loving father to his five-year-old son and touchingly concerned about the wellbeing of his ageing granny. Maybe so, but I was still thrilled when the ruling party decided to cut him off at the knees. The move came six weeks ago, in the wake of yet another Malema outrage, this time involving a virtual declaration of war on tiny Botswana, whose president Ian Khama has at times been bitingly critical of the stupidity on display in neighbouring Zimbabwe. In Malema’s estimation, this showed that Khama was a pawn of American imperialism, bent on ‘undermining the African agenda’. Malema found this unacceptable and announced that his Youth League would  take the lead in ensuring Khama’s downfall. Irked beyond endurance, the ANC issued a stinging repudiation. Shortly thereafter, we learned that Malema and five fellow Youth League leaders would be facing disciplinary procedures that could result in their expulsion from the ruling party.

At first glance, this seems to constitute the beginning of a happy ending, but I’m afraid the situation is more complicated than that. If the ANC were the noble organ of British liberal imaginings, it would have expelled Malema a decade ago, when he led teenagers on a protest march that degenerated into a looting spree cum racial pogrom against foreign Africans trading on Johannesburg’s pavements. Elsewhere, this escapade would have landed young Julius in a reformatory. Here, it caused him to be spotted as a comer by Winnie Mandela, the volatile ex-wife of our living saint.

Mrs Mandela’s reputation had by then been tarnished by Truth Commission testimony linking her to several unsolved murders, but she remained a formidable force in South African politics, hugely popular with ANC radicals and inclined to tear strips off her ex-husband for being far too conciliatory in his dealings with the white enemy. According to Forde, Winnie took young Juju under her wing and began to school him in the art of stirring up ancient racial antagonisms with a view to expanding his own power base.

Her investment paid off, six years later, when Julius seized the presidency of the ANC’s Youth League amid amid claims of intimidation and massive voting irregularities. This presented the ANC with another opportunity to nip Malema’s career in the bud, but again, it was not taken, presumably because presidential hopeful Jacob Zuma needed Malema’s support in his drive to unseat the incumbent, Thabo Mbeki. Zuma lived to rue this decision; within a year of his accession to the throne, the ambitious Malema was forging conspiratorial alliances with older politicians intent on toppling Zuma at the earliest opportunity.

So long as this remained the stuff of rumour and speculation, Zuma was willing to indulge Malema’s anti-white provocations and mysteriously expanding financial empire. It was only when Malema’s regicidal intentions became unmistakable that Zuma saw fit to act. Within weeks, Malema had become the target of a full-court
press that reportedly includes police and tax investigations plus the disciplinary proceedings presently underway in a recreation centre south of Johannesburg.

Malema is not going quietly. When a panel of ANC elders first convened to consider his case, he arranged for supporters to express their displeasure by hurling half-bricks at policemen and journalists and burning T-shirts bearing Zuma’s image. Last weekend, he declared that the fight would continue, irrespective of the outcome of his disciplinary proceedings. ‘This is war,’ he said. ‘There will be casualties, but I know we are going to win.’ Malema may well be right. A dismaying percentage of South Africa’s populace is young, black, unemployed and desperate, and hence willing to listen when Malema says, ‘We will take from the white minority and give to you.’ In our context, such rhetoric has the logic of gravity, and gainsaying it is difficult, given the complexity of the counter-argument.

Ah, well. We all knew in our bones that the Mandela years were just a honeymoon, and that it would eventually come to this. I think this is what Jonny Steinberg was trying to get at in the column that so irked me. It is the truth of our present situation. But it is also true that wholesale confiscation of the sort Malema seems to have in mind will wreck the economy, and with it, the system of welfare grants that sustains nearly a third of our population.

And then? Africa’s populist demagogues have traditionally relied on their white imperialist enemies to feed their people when their redistributive nostrums trigger economic collapse. That era is ending. As I write, global markets are tumbling as Greece stumbles towards debt default, with consequences too ghastly to contemplate. I somehow doubt that Europeans and Americans will be in a position to feed us if or when Malema wins his battle. Bitter regret looms ahead. 

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