Julius Malema and the death of hope
In the latter years of his reign especially, people listened when Julius Malema talked, privileged and poor both. He filled township stadiums as easily as he did press conferences and though he would sometimes carry on for hours, he had the kind of unwavering attention most politicians can only dream of.
"Julius Malema, he must come here, he must see how we live and help us."
That quote happens to come from Themb'elihle, a township near Lenasia in Gauteng in late 2011 but the sentiment was shared by many communities in protest – pretty much all of them except those in the Northern and Western Cape, where he was not quite so well trusted. Across the rest of the country he was the young revolutionary who cared about the people, who had the ear of the president – or, perhaps, had the president by the short and curlies – and the ability to bring change where local councillors, national departments, provincial governments and the legislature failed.
Younger people seemed to believe implicitly in Malema-magic: he would, somehow, bring the electricity, water, houses and jobs that were denied them. The older generation, including community leaders, were somewhat more cynical. Malema, they knew, could focus more attention than blocking roads and burning tyres. Such attention might or might not result in change, but heck, it was worth a try.
Then Malema's political career imploded and those communities – still without the services they believe they are due – were left without even a theoretical champion. The end came in increments and with confirmation on Tuesday that he lost even his prized Polokwane farm, there was no longer any doubt in the minds of the masses he valued more: Malema's time was over.
No outlet spells trouble
Perhaps a replacement will arise, a new young-lion-in-chief they can believe in. Perhaps Malema himself will find some kind of platform again.
Regardless, until the ANC Youth League is again on a firm enough footing to put forward somebody in the mould of Malema, or his predecessor Fikile Mbalula, a volatile section of South Africa's society is without a lightning rod.
For at least some communities in protest between 2010 and late 2012, Malema was half their hope for the future. The other half, some kind of major shift at the ANC's big Mangaung conference, came to an even stickier end than Malema's political career. For some he was the seed that would bring radically socialist policies to the ANC in the short term, for others he was a future president who would, in the fullness of time, realise their aspirations. Whatever the flavour of belief, it boiled down to an expectation of a better life.
Now Malema stands exposed as a hypocrite and a thief in the eyes of some, or as a victim of a political conspiracy in the eyes of other. Whether they see false idol or persecuted hero, though, the result is again the same – dashed hopes.
Could those hopes be transferred to other figures within government or the ANC?
'Everyone in the ANC is corrupt'
"Everyone in the ANC is corrupt," says a mid-ranking organiser from Themb'elihle. "They kicked out the man who was with the people."
Could an opposition party or a grass-roots organisation, provide the leadership now lacking?
"The ANC runs the country, runs the province, runs the metro," says a one-time protest leader from Thembisa. "We talk to these other people but they can only talk, they can't do."
Neither leader can predict how their constituents will react to the loss of Malema, to the loss of faith. But what they have seen so far is that disillusionment morphs into anger.
Whatever or whomever else Malema might have been, he in a sense acted as a buffer against that anger. But he will be able to do that no more.