It was tempting to do a victory dance when news broke that the ANC had conclusively ripped the carpet from under Julius Malema’s Gucci-clad feet. The joyous reactions and preening coverage suggested many South Africans did just that, ecstatic at his fall. But any elation is misplaced. Malema the man might be a busted flush for now, but we are left with his legacy and a basketful of intractable problems.
There were countless reasons to want him off the political stage. The demagogue in him was disturbing. His fulminations and histrionics had entertainment value, but they did not exactly lift the level of debate in the country. Correctly credited with focusing attention on the marginalisation of many South Africans, particularly young ones, he was nevertheless a setback for serious discourse about how to tackle South Africa’s most pressing economic and social challenges.
There was a time, in the pre-Malema world, when exchanging points of view and debating differences was much more the order of the day. Since Malema, people stopped listening to one another. Discourse is in short supply. The nationalisation debate polarised an already polarised arena. The great ideological rift between left and right is firmly back in play.
People talk past one another. Intelligent people who should know better formulate their responses even before the other side has finished making their point. This is evident in forums ranging from television debates and editorial columns to academic platforms and phone-in talk shows.
Another reason why it is a relief that he no longer has the power of his party’s platform to propagate his populism is that it was increasingly apparent that he was a fraud. It is true, we have many in power who run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. They say they are for the poor, but live the lives of the insanely rich. Their dishonesty is never exposed because they have patronage at their disposal. Malema’s credibility was slipping because he was finding it increasingly difficult to keep up his public posturing as the poor man’s saviour while being a servant to rapacious capitalism and corrupt capitalists.
The truth is that the problem was never Malema per se: he simply identified the sore points in our society and exploited them for his own ends. The vulnerabilities of South African society remain with us — extreme and deeply racialised inequality and economic growth patterns that enforce these patterns rather than ameliorate them.
We do not appear to be making much headway in tackling these problems. That is because Malema was the product of two mutually re-enforcing dysfunctional aspects of South African society: a ruling party that is finding it increasingly difficult to ensure the centre holds, which means that its senior people are run ragged trying to hold the organisation together; and a state that is good at passing lots of laws and new regulations, but is incapable of translating many of them into reality. The two are connected. If your most mature and wise minds are forced to use their best energy to hold the party together, the everyday business of running the country is going to suffer neglect.
We all know what our biggest problems are, but cannot quite get out of the starting blocks to fix them. And there could not be a more compelling time do so: the world’s major economies, some of them our biggest trading partners, are in a mess. You would think this would be cause enough to galvanise us into collective action, but it is proving not to be the case.
Instead we are running around like headless chickens. We cannot agree on a common approach, on a common platform from which to launch a survival strategy. We talk past one another, sticking to our respective scripts. Being South Africans, these are strongly laced with ideology. We cannot seem to break free. You are either for the workers, or the unemployed, or the marginalised, or the environment. Or you are against them.
The fact that capitalism is in crisis is adding to our miasma. For those convinced that free markets are the devil incarnate, it is like manna from heaven. Non-capitalist models are the rage. We are allowing ourselves to be swept away, forgetting that our state machinery, at best, is cranky and in need of repair, that the ruling party hardly has the wherewithal to keep its fractious members in place, never mind the broader society. We do not have the luxury of time, or the privilege of being able to pick and choose from a smorgasbord of options.
The recent love affair with the “Chinese model” is a brilliant illustration of this. We want to emulate China. Who are we kidding?
First, China has a capable state. We are talking about government machinery that is serious about what it does, even if what it does is sometimes wrong. When it sees that its policies are producing unintended consequences, or world events are tipping it in unexpected directions, it changes tack. We are talking about a system that does not pretend to believe in namby-pamby ideas such as a free press, freedom of association and multiparty democracy. And, to crown it all, we are talking about a state that has embraced sweat-shop capitalism last seen during the industrial ages of developed economies. Cheap, non-unionised labour. Now there is something to aspire to for South Africa.
Second, if you do things that bring the Chinese Communist Party into disrepute, such as stealing egregiously from the state, you are shot. A good many of our comrades would not be able to negotiate a “pass jail” ticket or campaign for a pardon. They would be dead from a single bullet to the back of their heads. And we claim we want to copy these guys?
I am increasingly convinced we live in a world that is more complex and nuanced than we could ever have imagined. It is a world in which the solutions invoked by either side of the great ideological divide are not good enough. Ideology will be the death of us. If we continue to insist that this is not the case, we will have made precious little progress by the time Malema returns to politics. And we will only have ourselves to blame when he successfully starts mobilising people with his mantra: “Political power without economic emancipation is meaningless.”
It will be as true in three or five or 10 years time as it is now. Unless we catch a wake-up call.
Caroline Southey is a former editor of the Financial Mail