Don't ignore Malema

As a child, I once almost amputated my finger. See, I had wound a rubber band around one tiny digit so tightly I couldn’t get it off. Worried about my parent’s reaction and the thought of a dreaded trip to the hospital, I decided to ignore it and went to sleep.
I woke up in agony, my finger bulbous and blue.

Of course it would be disingenuous of me to suggest the “ignore Julius” campaign gathering apace on Twitter is as ostrich-head-in-the-sand as my eight-year-old approach.

Indeed, its initiators are calling for just a week of focusing on other, perhaps more positive, issues in the country. “I’m not suggesting we ignore him permanently, or ignore the political youth or the ANCYL,” said Dominic White. “I’m hoping this will restore some balance so that we have less Heat-magazine-like reporting on Julius resulting in more balanced, less obsessive coverage of relevant political activities.”

After the viral success of the #SpeakZa Twitter campaign, this latest cause hopes to grip a new generation of self-styled “desktop activists”, using the hashtag #ignoreJulius

While it hasn’t been as successful as #SpeakZA, the campaign reflects a mood among many South African media consumers: Malema fatigue. Popular Thoughtleader blogger, Sarah Britten has already declared she will never write about him again, earning applause from her readers.

Yet the campaign has been conspicuous in the absence of support from media practitioners—the very group they hope to influence.

As one such practitioner, I offer my thoughts as to why we can’t ignore Malema—even for just a week.

“The white press have made Julius. It’s a symbiotic relationship. He sells newspapers and newspapers sell him,” said one commenter on Britten’s blog post.

I have heard the critique often enough and have covered Malema long enough to know that’s it’s rarely as simple as that.

The media have for some time been held responsible for “creating” Malema. The ANC itself has accused us of “Malemaphobia”—a clumsy phrase as only a government spin doctor could produce.

The idea that Malema derives his power from the amount of media airtime is rather chicken-and-egg in its logic. How did he earn the spotlight in the first place? By being newsworthy.

And by that I don’t mean newsworthy in his ability to churn out violent rhetoric and increasingly shock a sensitive liberal middle class. If that were the case, any number of leaders from the South African Communist Party Youth League to the PAC’s youth leaders would be household names too.

The fact is that Malema has come to such prominence because he has acquired so much power.

Some of that power came legitimately. Unlike many government officials, Malema has an incredible record for making tracks across the country, consulting and talking to his constituency at a grassroots level.

Particularly when he was first elected, a phone call to Malema’s sidekick and spokesperson, Floyd Shivambu, would find the team in any imaginable part of the nation.

It is this, among other things, that has earned him such solid support among the majority—not the vocal minority that are sick of reading about him. In addition, he has displayed Jacob Zuma’s popular touch. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the rational tone in his interview with the M&G as you’ll be horrified by his camaraderie with Zanu-PF supporters on his recent visit to Zimbabwe.

In addition, while many condemn his colourful and often provocative speeches, he has a knack for tackling the nasty and often ignored issues simmering in discontented hearts—nationalisation of mines, racism and forgotten government promises. The media hasn’t given him this knack by any means.

Of course, there is also the power he has managed to acquire illegitimately. We know that Malema wields considerable influence among government officials, with allegations of tender corruption in his native province on Limpopo. Again, these relationships date back to before Malema’s prominence in the media.

The fact that shamed former ANC spokersperson, Carl Niehaus, was seen queuing outside Malema’s office after his fall from grace, speaks volumes. Even senior members of government are mindful of his power.

As president he also inherits the traditional descriptor of the youth league as “kingmakers”. They say they swept Zuma to power and dethroned Mbeki and we may well believe them, given the sway the league has among the ANC branches. (Remember that when the ANC released its pre-election lists, compiled by party members, Malema ranked very highly).

Malema’s power and his ability to influence government officials and national policy has to a large degree merited the extensive media coverage.

He is a newsmaker, whether we like it or not (and trust me, many journalists don’t like this at all) and we are duty-bound to report on him, his sources of power and what he does with it.

Of course there is the gratuitous reporting on Malema’s every move and this tabloid aspect of the Malema coverage has disgusted quite a few readers. But not enough. Having worked for two major online publications (News24 and the Mail & Guardian) I can see exactly how many clicks any story receives. And anything with Malema in the headline is top of the pops. Media organisations are inclined to give readers what they want.

But even the “tabloid” aspect, I would argue, is worth the reporting. Damn right I want to know the cost of that expensive watch he flashes about while proclaiming how leaders must remain humble. It’s hard to separate Malema the celebrity from Malema the power-holder and influencer of national debate and policy.

As senior M&G political reporter Mandy Rossouw said in this interview, if you’re not interested in Malema, ignore coverage on him the same way you would all sports articles if you’re not a sports fan. That’s the beauty of choice.

I respect what the “ignore Malema” campaign is trying to do, but I for one have learned my lesson. I’m not going to go to sleep on an issue and wake up screaming when things have spiralled out of control. The sinister side of Malema represents a dangerous trend in our country that we, the media, must keep track of. Silencing him won’t stop it.

You can read Verashni’s column on the M&G every week, and follow her on Twitter here.

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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