Malema: It is a material world

If Julius Malema is “finished politically”, as the suspended ANC Youth League president reportedly told the Sunday Times, it has repercussions that go beyond the internal squabbles of the ANC.

One imagines his enemies in the ANC are beaming, clapping their hands in glee and punching the air in schadenfreude. Outside the ANC, creative people must be thinking: “Damn, there goes the man that kept us in business.”

The figure of Malema is now ubiquitous in the arts and popular culture. Irish journalist Fiona Forde recently published a book, An Inconvenient Youth: Julius Malema and the “New” ANC, and activist and columnist Andile Mngxitama’s latest essay in the journal New Frank Talk, “Is Malema a Mugabe?”, traces the youth leader’s political trajectory. Then there are the plays: director Paul Grootboom recently staged Rhetorical, a work drawn from former president Thabo Mbeki’s speeches. In the production, one of the adversaries of the figure of Mbeki is Dada Makone, a silhouette of Malema; likewise, Tsepo wa ­Mamatu’s play, Mbeki and other Nitemares, features a Malema figure.

In Rhetorical, actor Presley Chweneyagae played the Malema figure. There is a physical resemblance, and when someone makes a movie about the 30-year-old youth leader, the Malema role has already been taken.

An intrepid designer from ­Pretoria, Obakeng Ramabodu, has just launched a fashion line named after Juju. A Malema fan, he make berets, T-shirts and children’s ­clothing.

No reserve or restraint
In the arts it is “Malema this, Malema that”, so I asked a few analysts and artists what it is about the man that makes him so compelling. ­

Historian and political theorist Achille Mbembe saw the Malema ­phenomenon as the result of two things. The first was our transition “from the almost saintly body of ­Nelson Mandela, or the ascetic and dignified body of Thabo Mbeki, to a new kind of body that trades on its capacity to ingest and digest without reserve or restraint”. “It is a kind of lumpenbody in search of an aura and cloaked in the rags of money, women, cars and countless pleasures,” he said.

Mbembe also saw “something slightly thuggish and slightly carnivalesque in [this new body’s] public and private behaviour”, which has turned “South African politics into a Rabelaisian carnival”.

Art: An infamous Malema incident illustrated in Anton Kannemeyer’s book

In South African politics, indeed in South Africa in general, “Malema must be the most talked-about ­political figure” after Mandela, ­Mngxitama argues in his essay. The suspended youth league president “terrifies the whites, embarrasses large sections of the conservative black middle classes and ­embodies the hope of the black excluded ­majority,” Mngxitama writes.

A face for parody
The fact that Malema is chubby and clean-shaven and has a booming, ­cavernous voice must be helpful. Thus he has been satirised copiously by the TV and internet show ZANews, cartoonist Zapiro and artist Anton Kannemeyer.

He is known as “Juju”, a name that could be read in two ways. It might be an affectionate handle for a generous uncle — the one who will wake up at 2am to fetch a niece whose car has broken down at a nightclub — or a nickname for a feared sorcerer in the neighbourhood, whose property you avoid lest evil spirits blow your way.

Malema is given to grand gestures, for instance, the recent “economic freedom” march to Pretoria.

And then there are the verbal flourishes (Mbembe called it “verbal inflation”) that remain suspended in the mind, long after their uttering. Who can forget his brutal metaphor of Mbeki as a “dead snake”, or how he would “kill for Zuma”, or his spat with BBC journalist Jonah “bloody agent” Fisher?

Malema is the most interesting ­protagonist in South Africa’s political theatre. He has an innate sense of occasion. At the marches he will dress up in a Che Guevara beret, T-shirt and cargo pants, a throwback to another revolutionary era.

A cartoon by Zapiro

When he has to go off to exclusive events with the nouveau riche, he dresses up in Yves Saint Laurent garb, a Breitling watch and other designer labels. About his fetish for watches, Malema told Forde: “I have many watches. Many, many watches, to match my shoes.”

Passions and contradictions

In an incisive preface to Forde’s book, Mbembe wrote that Malema “embodies both the passions and contradictions of post-struggle politics and the dark and troubling undercurrents of a long South African tradition of lumpenradicalism”. In this tradition, Mbembe argues, “power is first conquered on the street before it is translated into the domain of home and formal institutions”.

Malema, to be sure, is not the first such radical; Mandela and others were the first “lumpenradicals”. Their first triumph was forcing the ANC to adopt the armed struggle in the 1950s.

A cartoon by Zapiro suggests that, in the decades-long evolution of ANC Youth League presidents, the present bunch are apish dwarves, distant relatives of the giant human figures of the 1950s. That is debatable, because every generation has different challenges to the one before it. It is impossible to know how Malema and former youth league presidents Fikile Mbalula and Peter Mokaba would have behaved if they had been part of the Mandela generation. Likewise, it is also impossible to know how youth league leaders of today will be viewed in the future.

Versatile and mercurial, Malema is one South African who can spend a day with ­residents of an informal ­settlement, attentively ­listening to their concerns; later that same day, in designer apparel, he will party at an exclusive club in Sandton. He manages, somehow, to make this all appear normal, not contradictory. It was something to which the people I interviewed for this article alluded.

A caricature of things he stands for
A few years ago, Wa Mamatu wrote and directed Mbeki and Other Nitemares, a production about the “recall” of Mbeki. Wa Mamatu, a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, is currently in Cape Town where his play is being staged. He told me that people like Malema have stepped into the space created by the absence of iconic figures in the mould of Brenda Fassie and ­others who had a visceral relationship with young people. Malema is “a caricature of things he stands for”. Malema speaks about the land, economic emancipation — noble goals — “yet he lives a double life”, recalling the unproductive black bourgeoisie of the newly independent country that Frantz Fanon railed against in the essay “Pitfalls of National Consciousness”.

It was a point echoed by Spoek Mathambo, whose debut CD, Mshini Wam, has an interlude, March for Union Buildings, in which he samples Malema’s voice. ­Mathambo said he found Malema interesting “because he is crude, rude and sometimes says very stupid things very bluntly”. But Mathambo said Malema also spoke of “true” and “controversial” things that “most people have been too scared to say, which is why he is so hugely ­popular as well as hated”.

The satirists, boasting more foresight than us mere mortals, have been watching Malema for years. The country’s funniest company, Nando’s, ran a provocative advert just before the election of 2009, in which a puppet of Malema, in a deadpan, monotonous voice, was demanding change.

The youth league immediately issued an ultimatum demanding that the food chain pull the advert, which it did. The commercial became a hit on YouTube. Initially Malema saw the humorous side to the advert, but the organisation he used to head did not find any traces of humour at all.

According to a 2009 report in The Star, Malema initially said: “I have no problem with the advertisement because Nando’s is trying to be creative. But if they use me they must pay.”

But Nando’s is not the only puppeteer in town.

There is ZaNews, a collaborative project conceived by Zapiro and director Thierry Cassuto. The show, originally accepted by the SABC but canned because it was deemed a tad too satirical for the bureaucrats at the broadcaster, features Malema in a number of unflattering episodes. It lampooned Malema when he lambasted Nedbank for withdrawing its sponsorship of Athletics South Africa, then headed by Leonard Chuene. It portrayed him as unruly and childlike — there was an episode in which he sang loudly and caused a ruckus riling a puppet of Helen Zille. A poster featured in the well-known humorous annual Laugh it Off (Jacana Media, 2010) portrays Malema and Zille’s tiffs using the titanic and cinematic analogy of King Kong and Godzilla.

Zapiro and Cassuto have choice epithets for him that include “PediPurists” (referring to his argument that there is no word for “hermaphrodite” in Sepedi), “Julius: the half-blood prince” and “confused youth”.

Malema is, of course, a more complex character than South Africa’s media will accept. Although he has been satirised as dim-witted and rather slow in some circles, he is remarkably articulate for a man of limited education. He is a shrewd ­politician and an intelligent ­organiser. Winnie Madikizela-­Mandela was right when she said: “You can’t ignore Malema. Ignore him at your own peril.”

Although there is a boorish aspect to him, he has an affectionate side. At a talk last week at the Boekehuis in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, Forde confessed that Malema was “good company” and “a very likeable person”. Mbembe put it succinctly when he said: “The register of our humanity extends from cruelty to mercy to love to thuggery, and all of that. The more an individual has all these facets, the more interesting he is as a character.” And Malema ticks most of these attribute boxes.

Reliving history vicariously

This year much of Malema’s appeal or controversy, depending on your race, class and political inclinations, stems from the struggle song, Dubula iBhunu (Kill the Boer), a tune for which he was taken to the Equality Court. It caused a stir in the 1990s when the late Mokaba, then youth league president, sang it. The song allows young politicians, born long after the declaration of armed struggle, to relive vicariously the ANC’s martial history.

It is not just Malema singing, mind you. Others are also singing about him. A few weeks ago a maskandi group, Izingane Zoma, released uMalema, a song that accuses the youth leader of being uncontrollable and disrespectful of the ANC leadership.

Most treatments of Malema are derisory: he is a rowdy politico, some say; others say he is childish and stunted. It might explain why Zapiro always portrays him as a child, whereas other satirists depict him wearing diapers. ZANews works on the premise that ­Mandela and ­Desmond Tutu are saints and ­everyone else is a villain. The ­satire is premised on what I will call the “­miracle of Qunu”, the idea that ­Mandela is a strange, paradoxical creation of the ANC. Simply put, this formula is reduced to Mandela is good and the ANC is bad. This view of the world is as uncritical as it is limited, feeding into the myth of South African ­exceptionalism.

And there are millions of young people — most of them unemployed and unemployable — ready to puncture this myth and wreck the South African dream. Most of these people, it turns out, look up to Malema as a paragon. They see his particular journey, the one from the township of Seshego in Limpopo to Sandton in Johannesburg, as one on which they could embark. But the global realities we live in are such that billions of people, sadly, are without such prospects. These are people, in writer James Baldwin’s words, “with nothing to lose” and they will not hesitate to stray into the dreams of the lucky few, turning them into nightmares.

As the luminescent glow of 1994 recedes into the distance, the work of our bureaucrats and big business becomes ever more urgent. If, as Malema suggested, he was indeed “finished”, the same should not be said of the group of people that strongly identifies with him. And if Malema is indeed “finished”, our artists have to create another pantomime villain or they, like the youth leader, are also “finished”.

Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.
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