Jacob Zuma brought the ANC a fifth landslide win at the polls. Thuli Madonsela kicked that win in the crotch and nailed the Nkandla debacle firmly to Zuma’s clammy forehead. Oscar Pistorius pretty much walked. All three of these notable South Africans said something important and lasting about their country in 2014, but they said it in the shadow of a giant floating onesie. South African politics, never for the faint of heart, has become a space opera directed by Quentin Tarantino. Parliamentarians no longer require knowledge of points of order, but a Mixed Martials Arts degree. We used to be Comrades, now we’re Fighters. We wanted a messiah, and we got one. Of a sort.
Julius Sello “JuJu” Malema owned 2014.
How about a video montage? Roll music: Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”. First reel: Malema smacking down a white dude in a Seshego burger joint for acting like a white dude, ushering in an inevitable lawsuit from Afrikaner lobby group AfriForum. Second reel: Malema in his red overalls, fist raised, looking out over the adoring crowds in a sweltering Marikana. Third reel: Malema in Parliament, in the same red onesie, yelling “Pay Back the Money”. Fourth reel: Malema in the Independent Electoral Commission on May 9, conceding defeat to the ANC, flush with having garnered six percent of the vote, and the political legitimacy that comes with it.
I’ll let you cut the rest, because if you’re anything like me, images of Julius Malema are easy to summon. It’s tough to find someone in the country incapable of pulling out a Malema anecdote, and almost no one who doesn’t feel a slight twinge of admiration for the sheer, epic-scale chutzpah attached to his continued rise. He’s textbook populist who hasn’t properly tested his popularity—the EFF won its 25 seats in Parliament without registering voters, and therefore stole 6 percent from the other, established parties. What does the future hold? Good question. But if you’re looking for a business opportunity, I’d say you could do worse than red overalls.
Oh, I know, Julius Malema is a “media-created phenomenon”, and that if all of South Africa’s newspapers and news sites were to stop giving him Person of the Year awards, then—well, what exactly? He’d go away? Focus on his speed-eating career? I’ve always had a problem with this reasoning, mostly because media in South Africa has the state’s imprimatur all over it, and with the SABC, Independent and The New Age (and their various affiliates) stumping for the ruling party, I’d argue that Malema is actually under-represented as a media figure, or at the very least has to battle a newscape that is enormously hostile to opposition parties. The EFF made this into a contact sport in April, when they marched to the state broadcaster, protesting the banning of an election advertisement that encouraged supporters to physically destroy e-toll gantries. (See also: the SABC’s banning of the DA’s Ayisafani election commercials.) At the rally outside the brutalist Auckland Park compound, which once served as the mouthpiece for another regime, Malema gave one of his more notable speeches, one that transformed his state-funded muzzle into little more than a nifty fashion accessory:
“[SABC acting COO] Hlaudi [Motsoeneng], I must warn you, I used to protect [Zuma] like yourself. He will dump you like a used condom, flush you like toilet paper. What makes matters worse for you, Hlaudi, is that you’re not a Zulu and you’re not from Kwa-Zulu Natal. Zuma will dump you. The ANC has been reduced to a tribal office. It has been Zulufied. All Zulus next to Zuma are tribalists. Zuma doesn’t care about anyone but himself.”
In one short, sharp sound-bite laden paragraph, Julius Malema slaughtered two sacred cows. The first was the “independence” of the national broadcaster, especially under its latest quisling COO: the “used condom” epithet clings to Motsoeneng with remarkable tenacity. But there was also the depiction of the ANC as a tribal party—still largely unfair and untrue—a subtextual reference to the fate of all African liberation parties as they rush toward the rapids of their own decline, clinging to the factional flotsam as they’re about to go under.
Two quick verbal parries, and voila! A narrative.
Which brings us, I suppose, to the issue of Malema’s sound-bite driven persona, and forces us to ask whether there is any wors with the EFF’s mounds of starchy pap. Say what you will about the ANC’s National Development Plan, at least it exists—so much so that the DA have largely endorsed it, and ANC supporters can debate its relative merits if they run out of household chores or are subject to an enormously long load-shed. The EFF ran for the 2014 elections on the basis of a thin election manifesto, derived from a much lengthier founding manifesto. Titled “Radical Movement to Economic Freedom in our Lifetime”, the document opens with a quote from Fanon—“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it”—and continues with the retro-vibe for 14,000 words. The drafters mention land 41 times, and their tome is stuffed with pre-edited, vaguely digested academic neo-Marxisms like, “Heterodox economists have perfectly illustrated the reality that virtually all developing economies that imbibe and naturalise the neoliberal policy prescriptions of the international financial institutions (the World Bank and International Monetary Fund) have and will never realise real economic development, as witnessed in all developed economies.”
The EFF under Malema has always been undergirded by a radical leftist line, and identifies its enemies as “political parties whose agenda and political programme is to continue with white supremacy and the imperialist domination of South Africa.” To this end, the party has erected seven “cardinal” non-negotiable pillars that include the expropriation of land without compensation, nationalisation of all mines, banks and “strategic sectors of the economy” without compensation, and some very big sweeping of “economic development”, whatever that may mean when no one owns land and the government runs the banks.
Although the EFF’s literature has been significantly fattened up with the introduction of their 256-page policy discussion document, which forms the basis of their December 13-16 2014 electoral conference, their ideological motivations have always seemed a bit, well, thin. Despite the reams of literature and the hours of extemporaneous yammering, Julius Malema has emerged as a political strategist par excellence. He is not yet considered a political thinker. He is less Julius Nyerere than Kenneth Kaunda, and those comparisons in themselves suggest a dingy malaise: Malema turns our political imaginations toward Africa in the 1960s, and liberation movements that South Africa was supposed to learn from rather than emulate.
Still, the CiC was once portrayed in the press as an uneducated moron. That’s yesterday’s copy. Today’s op-ed column inches are somewhat more ambiguous, as if we’re all awaiting the Big Speech, in which Malema reveals exactly how the EFF will win Economic Freedom in Our Time, and how that Freedom would function both as an alternative to, and within context of, the global neoliberal status quo. In more innocent times, before Malema had become the most important political figure in the country, Zimbabwe’s land reforms were used as a happy reference for what awaited us in a Utopian agrarian future. But Robert Mugabe is no longer Uncle Bob, and the Fighters have been denounced by the ancient strongman as a bunch of childish upstarts, even if Zimbabwe’s own Edward Snowden insists that Zanu-PF ministers are bankrolling the roller-coaster ride. And while we’re at it, who bankrolls what can at times seem like the world’s largest, most sustained political performance art project. (What is politics but a sustained performance art project?)
There remains deep suspicion regarding Malema’s motivations, and his penchant for the finer things in life—those Mercedes wagons, those R7,500 Louis Vuitton slippers, that enormous freaking tax bill! Grizzled, battle-scarred Stalinists like Ronnie Kasrils, who long ago abandoned the ANC for ditching the Freedom Charter, gets a randy glint his the eye when he talks about the EFF. But the leftist intelligentsia has been much less supportive, and one has to look hard to find either encomiums or denunciations from those who might be expected to embrace the warmed over Fanon-isms.
There is this pervasive sense that while Malema is everywhere, he remains essentially unknowable. Many whites remain terrified of him for his olde-timey “Shoot the Boer” sing-a-longs, and his Polokwane-era “we’ll kill for Zuma” bloviations. Many middle-class blacks remain terrified of him because it’s not like their land won’t be gobbled up by the new, red-clad cadres. Malema inhabits an essential, uneasy part of the South African imagination. It’s as if we dreamed him up and spat him out of our collective unconscious—a mixture of rage and finesse, brutality and charm, balls and bravado that is essentially South African.
This was his year. Next year may not be. But the crown will be increasingly hard to dislodge, especially as Malema learns to wear it.
Runner-Up: President Jacob Zuma
No award season is complete without a first bridesmaid: Jacob Zuma is less the president of this country than he is an over-arching meme for everything that’s bad about it. He’s created the mess that he finds himself in, and should have been felled long ago by far worse transgressions than Nkandla, but the story was so perfect—in a country in which people wait decades for housing, the president builds himself a palace—that it could only define his sordid reign.
Zuma is not quite a lame duck, but as he drags his career toward 2019, he’ll become less of a power broker and more of a punching bag for opposition politicians. He’s an easy target: every blow lands. Naming the ANC stalwarts who have destroyed their careers, legacies and digestion for protecting him has become a university drinking game: Gwede Mantashe! (Two shots). Jesse Duarte! (Four shots). Baleka Mbete! (Whole bottle).
Still, Zuma brought home 62 percent of the electorate in elections that were largely free and fair, his second such landslide, and such a massive win that it would get him chiselled onto Mount Rushmore if this were America. For that alone, and for playing along with a superbly disciplined ANC election campaign which had only Good Stories to Tell, Jacob Zuma stands just beneath his one-time protégé as runner up Person of the Year. He must get used to playing second fiddle, then third fiddle, then substitute triangle in the South African political orchestra. But even if irrelevance beckons, it hasn’t quite enveloped him. Never count out Jacob Zuma. The man above him on the podium knows this all too well. Which is why, I suppose, he won the crown.