Cynical game

2009-02-16 00:00

During the past week Mangosuthu Buthelezi, president of the Inkatha Freedom Party, reacted strongly to the recent verbal baiting of him by ANC Youth League president Julius Malema. He described Malema as “an ill-bred brat whose behaviour is not only un-African but crude by the standards of any culture in the world”. Buthelezi was clearly offended by remarks which came across as both a personal and a political insult. Similarly personal was the insult that Malema then levelled at national education minister Naledi Pandor regarding her “English” accent. As often before, Malema’s lack of respect for his betters was glaring, particularly so considering that Pandor’s accent was acquired as a consequence of her time in honourable exile.

It is interesting that Buthelezi described Malema’s remarks as “un-African”. Their repugnance is as much cultural as political. It is, for example, not customary for a young man to speak disdainfully in public of an elder, let alone a figure who, like Buthelezi, belongs to a royal house. This seems not to have been as obvious to the president of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, despite the fact that he belongs to the same cultural milieu as Buthelezi, but with Malema’s attack on Pandor the ANC has at long last issued a reprimand and extracted an apology.

This is well and good, but concerns persist. Malema has affronted many people, both political opponents and the unseated Thabo Mbeki, with apparent impunity. Is it only because he turned on a current cabinet minister, one of the ANC’s own favoured inner circle, that he has been called to heel? There is, too, still the suspicion that Malema is playing just the role that the ANC wants him to play, seeding confrontations in ways that the senior leadership cannot do as they pay lip-service to political tolerance. Robustness of political discourse is inevitable in any democracy worth its salt, especially when elections are in the offing. Yet many would agree that Malema has gone beyond the limits of what is reasonably acceptable. His loud-mouthed utterances introduce a heatedness to political debate which could precipitate acts of violence. In this respect he shows no sensitivity to the historical reality of KwaZulu-Natal politics in particular, where the danger of a recurrence of political violence lurks near the surface. Malema has been playing with fire, and needs to be firmly doused.

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