Malema's theory of white power caches resounds
There is a long-standing debate among pundits and commentators about Julius Malema.
Is he the creation of elites, and thus a figure with little resonance among the young and the poor? Or are his intemperance, his anger and his racism embodiments of popular sentiment?
Although many of the participants in this debate are black, the conversation is oddly reminiscent of white dinner-table talk during apartheid. What are the masses of South Africans really thinking? Do they want to loot our homes and steal our cars, or are they people of moderation and reason? These are the questions whites debated with urgency and emotion.
It is a telling echo, for it shows that black people have inherited what were once white fears. And it shows, too, that these fears are only superficially about Malema. At a deeper level they are about the character of that elusive category, "the masses of South Africans". What are they thinking? What do they value? Who might they come to follow?
This pundit has his own two cents' worth about the place of Julius Malema in South African society. I cannot claim to be on intimate terms with the masses, but there are corners of this country I do know well. Among them is a cluster of villages on the outskirts of Lusikisiki to which I have returned periodically over the past seven years.
In the spaza shops and shebeens and in the family homesteads, nobody talks about any public figure as much as they do about Malema. They speak of him with the same urgency as they spoke of Jacob Zuma at the height of his insurgency in 2007; and with the same degree of absorption as they spoke about Thabo Mbeki at the start of his second term in office in 2004.
Indeed, Mbeki, Zuma and Malema constitute the pantheon through which the people of these villages have made sense of where South Africa is going.
Why does Malema occupy so privileged a place? After all, many villagers dislike him and would not miss him if his public life ended tomorrow. People nonetheless talk about him because the story he tells about our country has been received here as a revelation. He says that the moment black people won South Africa at the ballot box, whites began to hide power in invisible places: in multinational corporations and in the media, in laboratories and the judiciary, in closed systems of esoteric knowledge. He says his mission is to go and find power where it hides, and retrieve it.
The moment Malema tells this story, people instantly recognise it as true. Even those who despise him do not doubt that he is correct.
For in these villages, life has always been shaped by invisible powers exercised by people far away. Like the powers that took all adult men to the gold mines at the beginning of the 20th century, and retrenched their great-grandsons 90 years later. Like the powers that stole ancestral land in the name of "betterment" in the 1950s and '60s, and changed life forever. And like the powers that created an epidemic of young deaths, just as South Africans acquired freedom.
"I had not thought of South Africa's transition to democracy the way Malema described it," a villager told me. "But once he said it, it seemed to be something I had always known."
It is possible that by this time next year Malema will be yesterday's news. Who knows? Nobody ought to predict the future with confidence. But if things do pan out that way, his presence on our political landscape will nonetheless have left two abiding legacies. First, whenever the ANC finds itself under pressure, the political destruction of Malema will be invoked by some as the moment the ANC suppressed a person who spoke truth. Getting rid of him will thus come at a price.
Second, in some ways Malema is foreshadowing what the ANC will in future years become. The idea that real power was not transferred to the people in 1994, that the privileged locked it up or hid it away will, more and more, become the ANC's official line. As it strains to maintain its support in places like Lusikisiki, it will increasingly represent itself as the vanguard of an insurgency against the powerful on behalf of the poor, complaining that the legislature and executive it controls are hollowed out and powerless.
Whether or not he remains a public figure, Malema's voice will echo well into our future.
- Steinberg is with Huma at the University of Cape Town