Why some find Julius Malema's views on Zimbabwe so provocative

Oct 17, 2012

South African political rabble rouser Julius Malema was in Zimbabwe over the weekend. During and immediately after his brief visit he ruffled a lot of feathers in his host city as well as at home. It is clear that he finds Zimbabwe's 'revolution' inspiring for his own battles, but what he means as praise for Zimbabwe sometimes comes out sounding as mockery. Still, his views are partly provocative because they offer a a view of the events in Zimbabwe that is diametrically opposed to the dominant South African and western narrative of the country as a 'failed state' that South Africa should carefully avoid emulating.

If he is as buffoonish as many of his critics contend, why not just ignore his statements? Because he strikes a particularly raw nerve with his no-holds barred statements of how he thinks change should come to South Africa. Expelled from the ANC recently, Malema can nevertheless not be ignored because his influence is at a far more insidious level than the obvious. Regardless of his political and impending legal fate over allegations of corruption, Malema is 'dangerous' because he has opened up a can of worms of questions about the very structure of South African society. Clearly just the questions, never mind some of the more controversial of his proposed answers, threaten the well being of those at the top of the South African socio-economic pyramid.

One accusation against him is that not only is he making the top ranks of South Africa's socio-economic caste system jittery, but that his type of thinking threatens to collapse the whole edifice of South Africa's economic success, reducing it to a type of Zimbabwe that would weaken and further impoverish even the many at the bottom of the pyramid.

Zimbabwe may be a country, but to many South Africans 'Zimbabwe' is also virtually a swear word. Nothing good can be associated with 'Zimbabwe.' At least part of some South Africans' visceral reaction to events in Zimbabwe is the deep fear that traumatic Zimbabwe-style events are coming to South Africa. Malema is partly feared and loathed because it is thought that rather than work to forestall bringing on such a 'nightmare' to South Africa, he instead seems to be egging it on.

Malema infuriates, unwittingly as well as quite deliberately and intentionally, by doing and saying things making it clear that he does not buy, at least not fully, the notion that Zimbabwe represents everything that can go wrong with the running of a country. He implicitly and explicitly rejects the prevailing South African notion that Zimbabwe is exactly the wrong model of post-colonial transformation that South Africa should seek to avoid.

Just going to associate with members of Zimbabwe's (worse, Robert Mugabe's) white farmer-expropriating ZANU-PF effective ruling party is considered bad enough. Making voluntary, high-profile visits to Zimbabwe at all is probably provocative in itself. After all, Zimbabwe is the country from which desperate economic refugees flock to South Africa to be pitied and scorned-it is certainly not supposed to be a country that any self-respecting South African would willingly go to for a weekend social visit as Malema did. That would almost suggest some measure of normality in Zimbabwe, and that is quite the opposite of the picture portrayed in the South African media.

But Malema goes way beyond these symbolic provocations with his Zimbabwe visits and associations. Knowing perfectly well that the media is listening to his every word, these are some of the statements he has uttered in the last few days:

* "What we are asking is for them (white South Africans) to surrender our minerals because they did not come with any mineral. We want that land and those minerals for free because they never paid for those minerals."

An outraged official of an advocacy group for white South Africans, Afriforum Youth, countered, "“Malema's ancestors also migrated southward and arrived here in South Africa without land. For this reason, we are of the opinion that Malema cannot lay claim to the contributions that white people have made to South Africa.”

In a way Afriforum's come back is really beside the point, because it is an argument they simply cannot win in black-majority South Africa. This is what Malema understands and plays on. Even amongst black South Africans who consider him to be a charlatan and demagouge, there are many things he says touching on South Africa's tortured past and unresolved present that many of them can completely identify with. In a way, Malema is fighting on a plane quite different from those of his critics and opponents.

Just this one land point-counterpoint shows how raw Malema is in making his point, provoking equally raw responses. This is precisely as Malema intends. For now this ANC-expelled, formally corruption-charged person is in many ways winning his propaganda fight, despite almost the entire South African media (and increasing sections of the Zimbabwean media) being arrayed against him.

* According to a Mail and Guardian report, in an address to a South African university audience, 'Malema drew comparisons between Zimbabwe and South Africa, citing the former as an example of a successful revolution.'

That alone would be enough for many to not only dismiss Malema as a crank, but to find him offensive and frightening. Because if he considers Zimbabwe as an example of a 'successful revolution,' and if South Africa needs a 'revolution,' or at least significant change, Malema is suggesting/implying that Zimbabwe might be a model of change for South Africa. This is to turn the reigning South Africa versus Zimbabwe narrative completely on its head.

* Malema ' said the country had taken tobacco farms from 4 000 white families and given them to 57 000 black families, and that these remained productive."Zimbabweans are producing gold using manual methods without machines. Can you imagine if they could give them machines? They can't get machines because they are under sanctions," he said, following a weekend visit to Zimbabwe to meet "progressive forces."

Here Malema gives specifics of why he is so loathed and feared in sections of South Africa, and why he is attacked fiercely rather than simply ignored: he really wants to turn over the South African apple cart, ala 'Mugabe's Zimbabwe.'

Even for his supporters, the mocking-Zimbabwe part is where he makes excuses for the country's own failures and refusal to take reposibility for them. Sanctions or no sanctions, there is nothing preventing Zimbabwe from 'buying machines' from anywhere in the world, for mining or anything else. One can easily see this in the number of fancy cars which government, public bodies and many individuals import from the sanctioning countries.

If Zimbabweans are indeed digging for gold with their bare hands (!) it is certainly not because 'they (who?) could (not) give them machines.'

While most/(all?) of South Africa regards Zimbabwe as a failed state, Malema looks at it as a 'successful revolution' that is messy because it is in its early stages, and that was necessary. That is fighting, frightening talk to much of South Africa

Malema may soon be going down. Amazingly still standing after being expelled from South Africa's ruling party, the whiff of scandal and charges of corruption formally laid against him recently may yet fell him. He has obviously many powerful supporters quietly behind him, but he has also stepped on some very powerful toes who will be happy to trip him.

But here's the thing: there is no way to put back in the bottle the genie of radical thoughts about the very structure of South African society that he has caused many of his countrymen to ask, even those who may not necessarily agree with his answers/proposed solutions.

Even if he does fall on the sword of his own sometimes recklessness, in a way Malema is going to be 'thought-dangerous' for a very long time to come.

The Zimbabwe Review


Post a Comment