Julius Malema, love him or hate him, is an astute political player who knows how to play to the gallery. He has an understanding of the South African political landscape that most of those who hate him do not grasp. This is not to say his threats of slaughtering white people are welcome or justified, No. It’s more to say that he has chosen to operate in the populist space that has been created by one of the biggest gaps in the world between the haves and have-nots.
The racial character of that gap makes it easy for a populist to step in and threaten one race while whipping up the emotions of the dispossessed or those who simply do not possess.
In the foreword to Fiona Forde’s book about Malema, An Inconvenient Youth, Achille Mbembe sums up the South African post-1994 scenario as follows: “One of the main tensions within South African politics today is the realisation that there is something unresolved in the constitutional democratic settlement that suspended the ‘revolution’ in 1994 but did not erase apartheid once and for all from the social, economic and mental landscape.”
It is the “something unresolved” that Malema has latched on to. He has summed that up and packaged it as the “return of the land”.
Let’s not fool ourselves, the return of the land as a demand of the Left is much older than Malema. The first organisation to break away from the African National Congress was premised on the demand for the return of the land to the dispossessed African majority in this country. The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) did not fare very well in the first democratic election though. What then, makes Malema’s call seem appealing right now to a significant section of the population?
In the same foreword, Mbembe goes on to say: “For each of the historical protagonists in the South African drama, this settlement resulted in no final victory and no crippling defeat. Seventeen years later, the country is still caught between an intractable present and an irrecoverable past; things that are no longer and things that are not yet. This is ironically the stalemate many hailed as ‘the South African miracle’.”
In the 22 years that have followed South Africa’s miracle, the lot of the majority of the poor improved only marginally while the wealth gap actually widened.
Those on the unfortunate side of the wealth divide can only view the miracle of 1994 as a well-constructed strategy to protect those who had wealth before democracy. Malema and other populists have realised this wealth gap is a political opportunity and have come up with time-tested and well-worn rhetoric to whip up the feelings of those who are still not enjoying the benefits of the South African miracle.
He goes overboard every so often with his statements and threatens the white section of our population – and he needs to be called to order for that, even punished if the law says so. But the greatest mistake we can make as a country would be to ignore the conditions that allow Malema to find such fertile ground in our political landscape to spew his racial diatribes. Those conditions are the same ones that give rise to endless service delivery protests.
These conditions morph from time to time into prolonged labour disputes such as those of the farm workers on wine farms that the rest of South Africa has grown comfortable with. The wealth gap continues to fuel the #FeesMustFall protests, and so on.
Though Malema can stand on a podium and claim to be prepared to be a martyr for the return of the land, his traction comes from all the evils the South African miracle failed to address and our current political masters continue to wish away without tangible plans to resolve.
Black South Africans did not suddenly wake up and realise the land is the be-all and end-all of the struggle; it is the result of very slow progress in addressing the injustices of the past, coupled with what is viewed as rampant looting of state resources. But the attitude that makes it possible for Malema’s periodic death threats against whites to pollute our national debate is the disregard of those who reside on the “right side” of the wealth gap. Malema will probably be fined, forced to apologise and maybe face legal sanction of one from or another. But that won’t fix the problem.
The surest way to isolate those who thrive on populist rhetoric is to ensure they have no leg to stand on; let’s address the very issues they prop themselves up on – let’s address the land issue, the grinding poverty and all the ills that continue to plague us.
That man Mbembe again: “It is the widespread failure to confront these fundamental dilemmas that has created the moral void in which Julius Malema is swimming.”