Malema is no national oracle - time to stop treating him like one

EFF leader Julius Malema during an Energy FM interview. (Chester Makana, News24)
EFF leader Julius Malema during an Energy FM interview. (Chester Makana, News24)

He was being his usual puffed-up self, but Julius Malema wasn't altogether wrong when he declared last week: "We're in charge. We are running the country from behind the scenes through ideas…"

Well, if an alien landed in South Africa from another planet yesterday and monitored the media, he would have the impression that Malema was no less than the Grand Emperor of the southern tip of Africa.

The EFF leader meant his statement as a swipe at the governing ANC, but it is an equally damning reflection on the South African media and many opinion formers and commentators.

It is a serious indictment of the state of our national politics in 2018.

Malema is a reckless politician trading in racial hatred and threats of violence; he is the populist leader of a militaristic, proto-fascist party with less than 10 percent proven voter support, yet he is the tail wagging the national dog.

These days one can't switch on a radio or television set or open a newspaper or news website without being confronted by Malema. The leader of the Official Opposition, a party three times the size of the EFF, struggles to make the news columns and when he does, he is usually ridiculed.

How does one explain Malema's dominance of the media, and often the national discourse?

Is he a charismatic genius? Are his close advisers like Floyd Shivambu masters of political strategy?

Is it because of the way South African politics have evolved (or not evolved) that the country needed a party like the EFF?

Is it the inevitable result of the wave of cheap populism that has swamped the country the last few years?

And another question: would he have had even half of his prominence and influence if the media had not treated him like a national oracle?

There is no doubt that Malema has staying power and a flair for populism and that he's the most media savvy politician we've seen since 1994.

He and his party have in the five years of their existence developed a successful campaign combining identity politics, racial mobilisation, political theatre, symbolism, shock tactics and cheap populism.

Successful, that is, in terms of media coverage and being a national talking point, yet not even dominating the media could help it grow beyond a tenth of the votes at election time.

When their favourite bogeyman, Jacob Zuma, exited the stage, they quickly launched a new campaign with much fervour using the emotive issue of land and turning the white minority into the common enemy of black citizens.

As populists the EFF is nothing new. It is following exactly the same programmes as Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe: divide the country between an evil elite and an oppressed majority; poke a finger in every wound of history; and make promises of wealth, power and fulfilment that are totally impossible to keep, regardless of the consequences once people realise this.

I think it goes without saying that the EFF would not even have reached one percent of the vote with its militaristic and militant style of politics if South Africa had made enough progress with economic empowerment and education and the eradication of racism, inequality, poverty and unemployment since 1994.

It would also only be fair to give Malema and the EFF some credit for injecting a new energy into our national Parliament, forcing some burning but neglected issues onto the national agenda and undermining the old culture of respect for national leaders, purely because of their position of power.

Malema gets away with more lies, inconsistencies and double talk than any other politician. He is not at all plagued by his past as a Limpopo tenderpreneur with a R16m tax bill and an extremely lavish lifestyle.

He once vowed to "kill for Zuma", but after he was kicked out of the ANC the same Zuma became his prime target.

He gets on a soapbox in defence of the Constitution when it suits him, but his behaviour and utterances prove that he has little respect for it.

In the same speech, like at the rally in Ermelo the week before last, he would insult and threaten white people and call them the enemy, then say the EFF doesn't hate white people at all and won't kill them, and then end his speech with a rendition of "Kill the boer, kill the farmer".

His extreme racial remarks and threats against the white minority (and Chinese and Indian citizens) are explained away as the legitimate uttering of black frustration. Critics are dismissed with charges of "white fragility".

And yet he and his party are slowly creating a national climate of hate and intolerance that could soon threaten our very stability.

In the United States Donald Trump's nationalist populism has emboldened the racists and haters to such an extent that human rights organisations have recorded a sharp rise in hate crimes and anti-Semitism over the last year or so.

Malema told the Mail&Guardian last week that the EFF was going to win in next year's general election, then quickly added that if it doesn't win, it will double its support of 6,35 percent in the 2014 election.

I think he may be right, but that will still make the EFF only half as big as the DA.

Malema triggers many white South Africans into venting their own racism and they respond with ugly insults of their own. It only makes him stronger.

When Eugene Terre'Blanche of the late AWB insulted and threatened blacks, most whites ignored him because they instinctively knew he was a windbag and a demagogue. But his rantings seriously worried and enraged most black South Africans.

When Malema does the same to whites – and no, I'm not suggesting any parallels between the EFF and the AWB, that would be outrageously stupid – they become very fearful and feel deeply insulted. But I have noticed that many sober minded, black people are ignoring him because they see him as a windbag and a demagogue on the campaign trail.

The media should stop being mesmerised and/or bullied/intimidated by this man and journalists should stop behaving like his groupies.

It is time all South Africans saw Julius Malema in proper perspective and for who he really is.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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