The meaning of Malema

2009-12-26 12:49

He is a hero in a South Africa that is forgotten in the era of Ayoba Ferial Haffajee. 

SOME time in 2007 a group of ­global fund managers came to town. Along with an editor of a major financial publication, I was asked to speak to them.

Even then, well ahead of the cataclysmic Polokwane conference of the governing African National Congress, it was pretty clear that Jacob Zuma would become president in 2009.

He was the genie for our Gini problem: my personal interest is in the Gini coefficient, the measure of inequality in which we rank an unconscionable first.

My work is to foreshadow the impact of such crude inequality on our country, and I felt that the South Africa stuck at the bottom of the pile found hope in the figure of Zuma.

The editor rose, gripped the back of his chair and in a plummy Anglo accent said: “Come now, Ferial. Surely not. Jacob Zuma won’t become president.”

He then regaled the moneyed men and women with stories about how a strategic and dynamic organisation like the ANC would never let a man like Zuma become president.

I hope his bosses bought him a new crystal ball. I tell the story not to show I was right, but because there is a similar denialism about the land, a similar narrative about ANC Youth League president Julius Malema.

I do believe that he will become Limpopo premier in 2014 and then take a stab at the presidency come 2019 – that’s the date our political team puts on it, at any rate. I think it may be sooner. And he stands a bloody good chance of getting it if he doesn’t self-destruct.

At a news conference last week Malema said he represented the poor black youth of South Africa. The subtext was that he didn’t care a lot for what the punditocracy, the literati and the middle classes say.

He’s right: the middle classes will not make Malema nor be particularly influential over the future of our country. There are too few of us and many of us exist in a bubble of Ayobaness, comfortable in the myth of a shared prosperity and drunk in our rainbow haze, blind to the walls of want that rise high around us.

The Gini coefficient divides us into two South Africas: one that tweets on the best technology and one that does not eat.
Over seven in 10 of the country’s jobless army are young black people under 34 years old. Dig deeper and you’ll find that one in two are under 24 years old.

If the numbers are right (and we should all pray they are not) this army will get larger and stronger. Literacy and numeracy as well as maths proficiency are going down among the youth while the only jobs being created are in services and other areas that require high skills. Its soldiers are being systematically locked out of the other South ­Africa.

Their lives are without many horizons of hope and the messianic, rhetorical politics of Malema is like manna from heaven. In this army, Malema is The Generalissimo.

Yet Malema also fits comfortably into the South Africa that tweets, with his penchant for Carducci, Sandhurst and Range Rovers. His is a life of fast women and faster cars. Mzansi fo sho! A canny maestro of brand-building, he has played the media like a master puppeteer this year: never out of the headlines, never more than a foot away from the front page. His hangers-on in the youth league issue media statements on his behalf almost every day and we in the media lap it up.

Some of my old-fashioned colleagues who do not see the waning influence of the media on big politics say we should ignore Malema and he will go away. He won’t. But the headlines feed his ego and he needs the media to build an image beyond his base of Limpopo.

It’s this constituency he rallies nearly every weekend and in which he gave out food parcels this week. His philanthropy has been noted by President Jacob Zuma, who has anointed him twice as a future leader. Zuma recognises the pea in his pod.

Both are populists; both have ­advanced to power through the poor majority. They know where the future lies – and Malema has a vision of himself as that future.

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