Revolutionary deliverers fill leadership vacuums. They tear down what no longer works, and embody the compromises a country is willing to tolerate as it rights a set of wrongs.
But leading a revolution is not the same thing as leading a nation, and few people can lead a nation on the back of leading a revolution. You end up needing a revolutionary deliverer to deliver you from your previous revolutionary deliverer.
22 years ago, Nelson Mandela became the sunny packaging of a trade-off that otherwise would have been unpalatable to many black South Africans. “The Mandelafication of the Struggle against apartheid is not by accident but by design,” insists Malaika wa Azania. And as I’ve said before, black liberation leaders got in bed with capital and today, the best black people can hope for under this status quo is a “fair” opportunity to start over in the New South Africa as though the Old never took anything from them.
Seeing the lawful provisions for inequality as a letdown, a considerable number of black families tapped into government corruption as one of their revenue streams. Zuma is the symbol of and makes possible the system’s permeability and penetrability even among people who’ve never been in the same room as he. The most unassuming civil servant relies on the milieu he’s set up to get away with blue murder. Zuma is not the respectable custodian of our country’s resources; he is the intruder who has broken in on excluded black people’s behalf, and as long as he’s there, defending broad-daylight corruption and mismanagement, those who are as he is will eat state resources, work less hours and give suboptimal performance: they’ll behave as they feel they’re entitled to, which is how they feel the beneficiaries of apartheid got away with behaving. So in many ways, the seeds for Zuma were planted and destined to sprout from Mandela’s time in office.
And where most politicians would have diversified the moneyed families they would pimp the country to, Zuma dedicated cabinet, parastatals and supply licenses to mostly one family – the Guptas. If the seeds for Zuma were planted in Mandela, then the seeds for Malema were planted in Zuma.
In his press briefing, Julius Malema threatened Gupta-owned media houses; in response, the Daily Maverick wrote a smouldering piece saying there is “absolutely no justification” for his threatening journalists; if Julius can let his issues with one family’s media houses cause him to do this, then there’s no saying that any media house’s perceived interference won’t be met with similar ire. In his zeal, Malema could become a bigger threat to democracy than the one he’s denouncing.
Of course, Malema backtracked at the briefing and promised he wasn’t threatening anything illegal. He realised he could not be in the establishment yet break out of its rules. So he is a victim of his own success. Getting his party into Parliament gave Malema the loudhailer he wanted, but it also gagged him. He is reduced to playing the DA’s drawn-out court game with Zuma.
But again, that doesn’t mean Malema himself is above the temptation to unconstitutionally bulldoze his enemies down. He’s called for a mass march to the Constitutional Court on the 9th of February. He guarantees a disruption of parliament should Zuma not open his State of the Nation Address with an explanation of why he relieved Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene of his duties in December. While his current interests may coincide with the protection of democracy, his methods properly belong to someone outside the establishment.
Julius Malema also had some spicy words about South Africa being sold to the Guptas for a plate of curry; he demanded that those Guptas return to India. By evoking stereotypes and naming countries of origin, he has played to prejudices on the strings of an unspoken grudge: Zuma’s fondness for corruption with Indian personalities and families (Reddy, Shaik and Guptas), which many of Malema’s listeners would see as the continuation of a pattern of Indian complicity from apartheid. Stay with me.
In rumours of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s anti-black racism is an indication that at some moments, the Indian section of the liberation struggle was less about dismantling an oppressive system than it was about revolting against the position Indian people had been relegated to in that system. That was too close to the level of black people for their comfort. Now we have a problem where the victims of oppression remain as divided as they were when they were conquered.
When I (as a black man) point out that Afrikaans and Indian people generally struggled for their human rights against the British – that is, not to be treated with a contempt that should have been reserved for blacks – I’m accused of minimising the suffering they did experience though it’s never my intention to deny that suffering. I am also accused of denying many instances where cross-racial solidarity happened in the face of great risk. So the conversation is frozen. This makes it perfect rhetoric fodder.
At this point, someone will point out that there are many Indian people who support the EFF and don’t view Malema’s words as divisive. But all I am pointing out is that to the extent that historical grudges between Indian and black people eclipse their history of mutual solidarity, to that extent those issues stand to be exploited not necessarily by Malema, but by whoever appears to that particular black crowd promising to resolve “the Indian problem” much as Hitler offered to resolve the Jewish one.
And Malema didn’t have to explicitly explain or deny this because in many circles, couched anti-Indian sentiment remains fashionable 22 years after the end of apartheid. I put it to you that Malema is non-vocally painting the Guptas as doing what Indian people have been suspected (rightly or wrongly) of doing: getting a piece of the State pie while black people get shafted. A Zuma who is corrupt with or for black people is understandable; a Zuma who is corrupt with or for white people is just doing what the ANC did in 1994. But a Zuma who is corrupt with or for Indian or coloured people is colluding with those who should have understood what it was like to be oppressed but instead rode on the same system. Cue many ANC voters defecting to the EFF.
How to resolve this bitterness, beyond pointing out that a.) there are more successful Indian people will a good work ethic than there are corrupt or racist Indian people or b.) the structural space a whole people group was put in is not synonymous with every individual in that structural gap or c.) Indian people are no more or less human than anyone else, and like everyone else have an intrinsic right to dignity?
I do not know. If anyone knew, we would have already completed the discussion on white privilege as well. But if we dare back down from that conversation because we do not know how to have it without gouging one another’s eyes out, then watch Zuma exploit our paralysis on the white privilege discussion, or Malema on the Indian discussion (or whoever else on whichever other discussion).
“It’s difficult to confront sexism dished out as casually as that. Like the popular kid in the class, Malema has a way of creating a protective layer around himself in a room. He dishes out hilarious one-liners usually at some or other person’s expense and has everyone giggling along while he grins winningly. It’s hard to argue with that.”
It remains hard to argue with that because we hardly speak about the prejudices being played to until they have been exploited.
In going along with Julius Malema, we could end up playing one embodiment of constitutional compromise off of against another just as, in Mandela, we found ourselves “merely changing the drivers of the same car” because we could not speak about white privilege then and cannot wrestle with history now. We are the country of false awakenings, thinking we’ve revolutioned unto a better day when really set ourselves up for a revolt against ourselves and one another. The Rainbow Nation was announced prematurely, before work had been done on the ground to create it. And now it is killing us.
To go along with Julius Malema, we must ask how much of the bill of human rights we’re willing to lose in order to get the economic freedom promised by the freedom charter – and whether such an economic freedom would be worth having. Unless, of course, Malema suddenly reveals a conviction on the Bill of Rights that goes beyond just catching out the ANC on its prejudices, or inviting South Africans of all stripes to join the EFF. And maybe he has. I do not know.
One thing is for sure. The aluta has been continua too long for us to sustain the cycle of revolutionary leaders that save us from past revolutionary leaders. A country in need of perpetual rescue is not a country at all; it is a business opportunity for those who make a profit supplying that rescue as a commodity. Malema could end up inadvertently selling the country to the same unbridled capitalism he accuses the ANC of having sold the country to. Who knows, eh?
The struggle continues.
Siya Khumalo blogs about religion, politics and sex; he has also written a book (#TheUnveiledFacesProject coming soon).
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