Malema is more trick than treat

In 2011, suspended ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema punted the phrase “economic freedom” with religious zeal. And, to a limited but noticeable extent, he captured the imagination of some.

That dramatic march from Johannesburg to Pretoria, highlighting the demand for economic freedom, won him at least 24 hours of respect from many of his detractors.

But there is something deeply troubling about Malema’s political trickery. He pulled the wool over many poor eyes.

The use of the phrase “economic freedom” is not about genuine economic empowerment for the poor black majority. It is simply a phrase that is being manipulated by the young political elite for ultimately selfish material gain. The real problem, economic injustice, is being carefully exploited in public political discourse for the wrong ends — positioning Malema and his cronies to access state largess. The real losers in this political language game are the poor black majority.

Let us unpack how this cruel political game works.

Malema’s starting point is to observe and shout about uncomfortable truths about our country and the legacy bequeathed it by colonialism and apartheid. Despite a successful transition to democracy and political freedom, plus 17 years of an apparently progressive ANC government, life continues to be miserable for too many South Africans especially the poor black majority. This constitutes an injustice.

Our official unemployment rate is at 25%. Millions live in poverty and we are consistently classified as one of the most unequal societies on the planet. This is the lived reality for millions and it is the reason why many were willing to march with Malema. He taps into this economic discontent. He comes across to an unsuspecting poor person as being genuinely empathetic.

If Malema has any real popular support, and at times detractors are too hasty in their denial of this, it is support that is located in his followers’ belief that Malema feels for them — that he, literally, walks with them — in a way in which other political leaders do not.

However, the problem is that Malema’s empathy is not genuine. It is designed, first, to improve his political stature within the ANC in his battle with other leaders. A key wish for the youth league in its disciplinary battles with the mother ship is that a “political solution” will be found. And, clearly, if there is demonstrable public support for the youth leaders and their political programmes then, or so they hope, “the elders” might be less harsh on them.

None of this strategising is about the lives of the poor black majority. So the poor are simply political pawns for Malema.

Second, the quality of the policy proposals that are put on the table by Malema for how to achieve “economic freedom” are so poor that clearly what looks like empathy is not actually heartfelt solidarity with the poor.

If that were the case then the details of how to achieve “economic freedom” would be both clearer and more compelling than what Malema puts on the discussion table.

For example, there is a list of problems with the idea of nationalisation that the youth league leaders simply have not engaged. For one thing, it is not clear what they mean by the state taking over strategic sectors of the economy. Should the state actually own and run mining companies?

It already owns and runs a diamond-mining company, Alexkor, and the result has been a loss of jobs for the community in the Richtersveld where the mine is located and protracted legal disputes between the community and the state about the state’s failure to share the spoils. So, not only is the state bad at running these kinds of enterprises there is also no guarantee that profits would trickle down.

In many instances where the ANC government is burdened by control by the state, through which the lives of economically and socially margnalised black people could drastically be improved, it has failed. This is most visible in local government services, education, health and housing but is equally true for public enterprises. Why would it be any different if the ANC government ran farms and mines?

If the youth league cares about broad-based economic empowerment, why does it not, for example, punt the idea of worker-or community-structured share ownership schemes and take the inefficient and self-serving state out of the empowerment equation entirely? These and other constitutional and economic challenges are hurdles the youth leaders never engage in detail.

We argue that their poor and unconvincing grasp of these issues is evidence of a motive that is not about economic empowerment for the poor black majority. Their poor grasp of the economic and legal complexities, as well as of the executive and management arrangements of running enterprises, exposes the fact that the language of “economic freedom” is simply about their own narrow political and economic interests.

Now that Malema’s actual motivation is exposed, it is also obvious that the use of the phrase “economic freedom” is cruel and not merely deceptive. It is cruel because it preys on the empty stomachs and deep disappointment of destitute South Africans.

Malema, it turns out, is less economic freedom fighter and crueller political trickster, playing inappropriate language games in a time of social and economic injustice. Surely, the poor deserve better.

Eusebius McKaiser is an associate at the Wits Centre for Ethics. Ebrahim Fakir is head of governance at the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa. These are their personal views.

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Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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