Malema is feeding off the violent chaos at our mines, much as the Joker from Batman would. But he's not the one to blame, writes Verashni Pillay.
The Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is a terrifying character. Forget good and evil: in the late Heath Ledger's take on the classic villain, we are presented with someone who prizes violent chaos as an end in itself.
One can understand the rationale of the classic bad guy: power mongering or accumulation of wealth. The Joker on the other hand – like Loki in Norse mythology – feeds off chaos.
I can't help but think of both the Joker and Loki as I watch Julius Malema move from one tense situation to the next, stirring up already violent emotions among frustrated miners. It's the violent mines tour and it's taken him from the horror of Lonmin's mine in Marikana, to Aurora's mine in Springs and then on Monday, like clockwork, to Goldfield's mine on the West Rand.
He was out doing what he does best: stoking the rage of the largely powerless and leaderless with simplistic half-truths and dangerous assertions.
"Make the mines ungovernable" and "lead yourself" is his rallying cry in the face of the horror of 34 miners having already lost their lives doing just that. It seems like sinister mischief – plain and simple.
As the Joker points out to Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight: "Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos."
But there is something honest about the Joker that ultimately endeared him to many fans in Ledger's version of the character. He truly doesn't care about any of the human motives for evil. He sets fire to a mountain of money and laughs at pain.
"Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just … do things," he says.
Malema on the other hand is the more garden-variety bad guy. He has a nose for chaos and a more pedestrian desire for power. It's a horrible combination. The perennial bad boy of South African politics has re-emerged after an expulsion from the ANC that did little more than strip away what slight reservations he may have once had.
Now it's become a free-for-all with Malema regularly playing on the same riff: Jacob Zuma is the worst president ever and needs to be replaced at Mangaung come December.
But these days he has far better material to work with: angry miners who have, until now, been largely ignored by those who mattered. Malema has the best news sense of any politician in this country and sniffing out a platform to make himself heard about his new nemesis, he seizes it.
The dirty and meaningless politicking is a weary but familiar sight but the opportunistic manipulation of such an incredibly dangerous situation is not. Where cool heads and firm leadership are needed to address the legitimate concerns of striking miners, Malema has stepped into the vacuum to offer fiery rhetoric and violent invective.
And that's the real tragedy here. Malema isn't the reason we're experiencing the deepening crisis at our mines, the lifeblood of our economy. He is doing what any mischief-maker would: taking the opportunity handed to him on a silver platter by leaders who have absconded their responsibilities.
In many ways Malema is really just being true to character. If anything, he is the only one doing his job brilliantly, while the mine bosses and ANC and union leaders offer no clear leadership in a situation that desperately needs it. Indeed South Africa seems to be all out of heroes to step in and save the day.
The Joker ultimately meets his match in Batman, and balance between the forces of good and evil, order and chaos, are restored to a degree. But our golden days of great leaders who could step into a situation threatening to detonate and restore a semblance of order seem woefully far away.
Zackie Achmat drove that change for HIV/Aids denialism, Jonathan Jansen did it for the racial tinder pot at the University of the Free State and Nelson Mandela personified that kind of leadership with the Rugby World Cup plus countless other tense situations.
In a time like this we need a strong leader who can remind the miners, the mine bosses and the unions that we are better than this; that we can resolve the situation without further bloodshed.
What we don't need is Malema playing with fire – all for the worst kinds of political opportunism. But in the end that is all that we – and the miners – are going to get, until a real leader steps forward.
At the end of The Dark Knight the bat signal is smashed and the hero disappears. It's difficult not to wonder if we're in the same predicament.
- Verashni is the deputy editor of the M&G online. You can read her column here, and follow her on Twitter here.