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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

Understanding the Julius Malema phenomenon: A South African necessity

FM Lucky Mathebula - 2011-10-04

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In one of his seminal speeches Martin Luther King Jnr warns society that “[I]n the end, we will remember not the words (or noises) of our enemies, but the silences of our friends.” The ascendance of Mr Julius Malema to what is arguably the most powerful position to be held by a young adult in South Africa has attracted noises and silences that only history will tell of their animosity or friendliness. Whatever the answer turns out to be, Mr Malema has entrenched himself as both a legitimate leader of a sizeable section of South Africa’s youth and a political phenomenon available for intellectual inquest.

As a youth leader Mr Malema represents the biggest organised youth constituency in the developing world. According to ANCYL conference attendance procedures, every delegate that graced the conference in a representative capacity commanded 50 registered members of the Youth League. The conference is reported to have had 5 300 delegates; this translates into 265 000 members. Assuming that each registered member represents 10 additional supporters of the ANCYL cause the number balloons to 2 650 000 supporters; added to this number would be those youth-age members of the ANC who are “silent friends” only waiting to make their informed noise during the country’s elections. The sum total of these youth groups computes to a sizeable and rather vocal part of the official South African population that has a voice in Malema.

While the numerical justification of Malema’s legitimacy as a confirmed youth and South African leader that will not require 27 years’ imprisonment or exile for society either to agree or to disagree with what his generation stands for, it is in the phenomenon he has become that an intellectual inquest is required. “Phenomenon” is broadly defined to include attitudes and events particular to a group that may have effects beyond the group, and either be adopted by the larger society, or seen as aberrant, being punished or shunned. He is in many respects representative of what a phenomenon is or can be.

In his short span as a youth leader he has thus far displayed attitudes and was, and potentially still is, involved in activities that will culminate in events impacting beyond his generation. The challenge that he, or what he may be representing, needs to manage is that of dealing with a society that has chosen to view his activities as ignorable. South Africa’s social ordering and information-manufacturing environment has relegated the “phenomena” in Malema to an in-party political leadership contestation matter. This unfortunate social ordering of South Africa that has race as a primary vector of analysis and minority “rights” as secondary lenses for observing any emergent phenomena has once again denied society an opportunity to honestly interact with what the ANCYL represents for this country’s future; the Sandton Convention Centre conference of the ANCYL gave him some mandate to be what he is or has become. In our attitudes towards the Malema mandate we are either adopting a posture of seeing it as aberrant or are planning to shun it because our democracy won’t allow us to punish him since free political activity is constitutionally entrenched.

The 1994 democratic breakthrough elevated to prominence a new breed of South African leadership. This cohort of leaders was fortunately socialised as young men and women by an education system that taught them about the equality of humanity. This group of leaders continue to decorate the annals of South African history for reasons that vary from hero to villain, depending on the choice you make when reading about all of them. The ability of the Mandela cohort to embrace reconciliation was a function of statesmanship, adulthood and predisposition to a set class structure of which the foundations were built prior to the institutionalisation of apartheid. It may be argued that judging Malema on those standards may be unfair to what has socialised him, notwithstanding the truth about some within his cohort who display a different attitude from the one he has come to be known for.

Infused into the pre-Malema cohort of ANC leaders and elders is a mixture of the 1976 generation of leaders, many of whom were graduates of the systemic oppressor education, an environment that entrenched in them a particular respect for “authority” irrespective of what legitimises such an authority. In effect, this cohort of leaders could easily be “bought” and “co-opted” into the mainstream class structure created by the “multiracial” Mandela Cohort. In these generations of leaders you would find men and women who only understood, and in many respects experienced, discrimination that is often mistaken to be racism. The post-1994 Mandela class integration, on the back of a narrowly defined reconciliation platform that was mistaken to be a non-racialising assignment, created within this adult cohort of leaders a sense of acceptance by other race groups to an extent that to some it signified an arrival at the non-racial destination of South Africa.

The Malema generation of youth followers is in the main composed of what is today being referred to as born-frees. This is a group of youth that was born from 1985 and experienced mixed race education as well as “open and yet unavailable opportunities”. To this generation, “freedom” is who they are and “integrated societies” is what they have become. They are a generation that has an experience of what it means to be good at something and yet not be allowed to excel because of who you are in class and race terms. They are a generation that was thrust into global competitiveness without any adequate preparation by their history, circumstances or choices.

Julius Malema himself has consistently been presented as the epitome of this generation. The overemphasis on his matric scores and social background, as well as a growing preference by mainstream media to foreground second-language articulate African kids, created a definite “us” and “them” that was class defined. The continued and subtle racism that is experienced by African kids in Model C and private schools has created amongst the “hope class” a literate and yet angry group of young black kids that are interested only in the quality of the education provided but not the value system it purports to be striving towards. The “coconuts” are gradually becoming black inside as a result of the growing cultural awareness that is propelled by emergent African leadership from “discounted” communities like the one Malema comes from.

The general discontent of this generation has found resonance in the slogan “economic freedom in our lifetime”. Emulating the 1949 and 1976 generations when they declared war on the prevailing social system, this generation identifies, and potentially with the assistance of the global economic crisis, the economy as a site for a “new” struggle. The extent to which the issues raised are empirical to qualify the emergence of a call to action by this generation has now become a political discourse of our lifetime. The absence of an economic stance by the ruling ANC confirms Nkrumah’s assertion that an ideology that comes to characterise society should be a function of a successfully ended revolution.

In its quest to define an end state of the “revolution”, the Malema generation created for itself a trajectory within which they can define a programme. The organic nature of the slogan and its relevance to prevailing South African socio-economic conditions provides currency to the transacting political environment. The mere existence of the slogan attracts solutions to this generation in a manner any organism becomes adaptable in the absence of defined rules of engagement, whence the attraction to what has arguably failed elsewhere but has never been tested in the current global environment dominated by developing economy paradigms of socio-economic planning.

As a youth formation the ANCYL represents, therefore, an organised obligation to implement what defines them for an agreed term. The Sandton resolutions on the economic future of South Africa have now become a template within which the country’s “either or” discourse is measured. Society has a responsibility to “convince” the Malema generation of the correctness, incorrectness or otherwise of their positions on the commanding heights of this economy. The obsession with palace politics with the hope that in-ANC leadership contests will through some magic wand resolve the vexing questions of economic transformation will only serve to create “intellectually gated communities” with comforts that are alien to discourse creators such as the Malema generation.

The subjugation of pro-poor economic debates in order to avoid discussing the “true structure” of the South African economy in terms of ownership patterns can only serve to create a new economic theory by the majority on how to balance the glaring imbalances. In the absence of a defined course of thought and debate, constituencies within a society default at stressing their own and obligatory ranges of conduct. Instruments to guarantee conformity to such conducts include coercion and cohesion, prohibitions and permissions, inclusion and exclusion, as well as labelling and popularisation.

The ANC as the nexus of political life in South Africa is therefore obliged to confront all manner of debates that were raised at the ANCYL conference. The intellectual fortitude of the movement is once again challenged; the mere reduction of the emerging economic debate as political grandstanding by the youth will confirm a concretising view that the ANC is experiencing intellectual dearth. The compartmentalisation of platforms of engagement on the basis of an undefined ideological framework is fast juniorising the moral high ground the ANC has earned through struggle. The struggle history space is being redefined to include anyone that fought apartheid to be a potential icon deserving of national honours irrespective of current party and or ideological affiliation.