Beware Malema’s constituency of rage

2011-05-28 10:06

While they would be horrified to think it, the handful of white residents of Bishopscourt – a wealthy Cape Town suburb – who are opposing the return of 86 families forcibly removed from the area under apartheid laws in the 1950s have something in common with Julius Malema.

Both represent the symbolic manner in which unresolved matters of the past continue to intrude on the present in an often destructive and divisive way.

From Malema’s “hate speech” hearing to his labelling of the DA’s national spokesperson as “the white madam’s tea girl”, to his ongoing call for nationalisation and his comments that white people are “thieves”, it is clear that Malema’s language and rhetoric find traction in unresolved issues of the past.

Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela – the author of A Human Being Died That Night and one of the few South Africans who continue to engage in matters of national reconciliation – last week spoke at the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts’ Great Texts, Big Questions lecture series at the University of Cape Town, which explored the risks of ignoring this past.

In 2000, she published an editorial in the Boston Globe warning that in South Africa “the next revolution might not necessarily be a racial one, but one in which the masses rise against the new breed of beneficiaries of privilege”.

And now, like a plaster drawing pus from a wound, she suggested that Malema’s model for engaging with history “flirts with the most destructive aspects of memory – revenge”, and that this threatens the very future we imagined.

But Malema’s in-your-face rage has also found a constituency because, as Madikizela pointed out, “they reflect the voices of the disheartened across the colour line. Disheartened because they have not seen the change promised or hoped for.”

To those who are still dispossessed and who experience life at the margins of society, Malema is “the answer to all their pain because there was something that was lost that has not yet been addressed”.

By ignoring this and insisting that we move on without addressing these issues, she warned, matters “can explode into something uncontrollable”.

So, where does the band of resistant white Bishopscourt residents fit in?

Madikezela suggested that while Malema generally employed an overt language of violence, the residents used the more subtle violence of money and knowledge of the law to thwart an attempt at redress and healing.

And if South Africans, black and white, want to wrestle the destructive narrative away from Malema, we have to change how we engage with the pain and memory of the past.

As long as it exists, so will he.

Apart from deflecting attention from unaccountable state officials, Malema’s rhetoric can plunge the country into a cycle of anger and could “throw us back into an abyss of repetition and violence”.

“Because the tendency then is to direct the blame at white people, white people then feel like they are the victims of Malema’s wrath, anger and rage.

And so perpetrators become victims, victims become perpetrators and the cycle continues.”

One example of how this cycle can be interrupted is in how other white residents of Bischopscourt were willing to engage in the matter of Protea Village.

Accepting and acknowledging the wrong, they worked with the Anglican Church and members and descendants of the displaced community not only to “dialogue”, but to restore an old stone church that once served the original community and to work towards the relocation of that community.

“Some people ask me why bother with all this ‘emotional crap’?

But violence is also about emotion.

What we miss is that these stories of violence in our country are about emotions.”

The way forward, Gobodo-Madikizela concluded, was for South Africans not only to address the needs of the marginalised and dispossessed, but to face each other “with an open heart”.

» Thamm is a freelance journalist, columnist and editor

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