/ 13 March 2014

Soapbox: How Malema became Mao’lema

About a 100m from the stage
About a 100m from the stage

How did Julius Malema become Mao'lema? If you are not on any social media networks you may not know. Last Saturday during the launch of the election manifesto of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in Thembisa, a magical moment presented itself in front of the more than 60 000-strong crowd. It was a moment that symbolically seemed to have installed Malema as the leader who carries the hopes and fears of those who are unhappy with the political and economic status quo. 

Basically what happened is that after the speech and a frenzied spontaneous singing that erupted across the field of red, about a 100m from the stage, there emerged a portrait of Malema in the profile of China's erstwhile leader Mao Tse-tung. It was hoisted high above the multitudes of red. It was an ecstatic moment of symbolic reconstitution of the 60 000 into a single force in the form of Malema as Mao. The picture soon made the rounds on social media, provoking admiration and derision. Those who are already Fighters celebrated the picture, dubbed it "Mao'lema", and turned it into their avatars. A section of the middle classes decried the sins of "idolatry" and the dangers of the worshiping of the leader, thereby betraying a fear for the collective wisdom of the revolutionary mass. 

Those who want a fundamental change from the status quo would have to follow the French Marxist thinker Alain Bodiou when he says that, today to fight for change "one has to renew the position of the master – it is not true that one can do without it, even and especially in the perspective of emancipation." This does not mean that the leader knows everything, or that the followers are unthinking sheep, but it's a realisation that to achieve the collective desire for liberation there is a need for a unifying symbol. As Slovanian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, and incidentally a friend of Badiou tells us, "a proper politician does not only advocate people's interests, it is through him that they discover what they 'really want'".

Žižek argues that the left has not been able to constitute itself into an alternative despite the deep crisis capitalism has been undergoing because it has not learned from the leaders of the Right – such as Maggie Thatcher. Žižek then says, "what we need today is a Thatcher of the left: a leader who would repeat Thatcher's gesture in the opposite direction, transforming the entire field of presuppositions shared by today's political elite".

It can be said that in South Africa, twenty years of ANC rule presents an ongoing and deep crisis of governance which has seen no effective response from the left up to now. Žižek tells us that in times of crisis, a Master is necessary to basically wade through complex propositions of specialists into a simple equation of "yes or no", such as in times of war. Žižek further tells us that, "the function of a Master is to enact an authentic division – a division between those who want to drag on within the old parameters and those who are aware of the necessary change". Interestingly he says such a division "is the only path to true unity". We can therefore say that the main problem of the left up to now is the fear of the master, hence the absence of true unity and authentic action. Incidentally, capitalism has no such fears, as we have seen in the symbolism of Coca-Cola.

The fear of the master is also an outcome of the horrors of the cult of the personality which defined the Stalinist era in Russia. Truth is, the capitalist bloc has done a great job of projecting any revolutionary leader who comes to symbolise the great moment of revolution as an egotistical Stalinist, and thereby helped to spread the pseudo anarchist radicalism based on hyper individualism that has seen well meaning people worshiping ideas such as 'we are all leaders', which leads to dead ends and no possibility of enacting a real authentic moment of rebellion. We have seen the tragic result of leaderless revolutions in Egypt, Libya and now Kiev. They end up taking instructions from Brussels and Washington DC. The initial euphoria evaporates into deep depression and mutual destructive violence and directionless. Of course all revolutions and their leaders can go bad, but this is not because there is a leader seen as the symbolic representation of the moment.

One has to not fear the leader and the symbolism that goes with them, one has to always be aware of the programme that underpins such symbolism. What Mandela, the symbol of freedom, stands for is so vague that anything can be pegged on him. But the programme that underpins the symbol of Mao'lema is not ambivalent at all: land expropriation without compensation, nationalisation of mines and banks, and elected politicians must use public services. These propositions are not open to multiple readings.  

I called Baba Khumalo, the artist who produced the piece, and asked what his intention with it was. He said, "I wanted my leader to know, God has sent him to lead us to freedom". The quasi religiosity that accompanies radical politics can be read as the necessary transcendental energy so beautifully captured by Thomas Sankara, when he said, "You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness".