“Lindiwe Zulu is a street meid.”
The comment about the minister of small business development dropped like deadweight into a hot conference room at the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) headquarters in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.
We saw it go down, watched the dust settle and looked away.
EFF leader Julius Malema has said some winning one-liners in the past, but the journalists assembled in the room on Friday didn’t know what to do with this one.
Malema, however, toyed with it for a bit. It was day five of his suspension from Parliament and the charismatic leader must have felt left out of the action the previous day.
Pandemonium had erupted among the remaining EFF members in Parliament and their new friends, the Democratic Alliance, in what has to be the most awkward temporary alliance ever. The ANC-led house’s attempts to adopt a resolution exonerating President Jacob Zuma from upgrades to his private home in Nkandla resulted in several hours of filibustering, and eventually riot police being summoned.
Responding to Thursday’s events, Malema referenced one incident, where Zulu had a verbal tiff with the EFF’s Godrich Gardee inside the National Assembly Chamber.
Zulu signalled to Gardee to take the matter outside, Sapa reported. Gardee did not follow her out and shaky video footage showed a furious Zulu being physically restrained as she shouted for him to come out.
At the press conference on Friday, Malema described her actions with disgust and repeatedly called her a “street meid”.
It is a slang phrase, more commonly pronounced “straat meid” that generally refers to a rough woman, sometimes a prostitute, who is uncouth and wild. Interpretations differ but Malema’s continued statements made his understanding of the term clear.
“She’s like that … How do you take such a thing seriously? A woman who goes to the streets and says, ‘come I’m waiting for you’.” He even said that she had raised her skirt.
Malema hammered the sentiment home when he referenced Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s similar comments about Zulu in July 2013.
When she was international relations adviser to Zuma, Zulu questioned Zimbabwe’s readiness to hold free and fair elections, and earned Mugabe’s ire.
He told Zuma to make Zulu “shut up” and, according to reports, called her a “street woman”.
“Mugabe called her a street meid … he had evidence about that,” said Malema, adding: “Mugabe didn’t apologise to South Africa – South Africa apologised to him.”
(Malema is wrong on that. Zulu recounted how Mugabe took her aside and apologised.)
Malema quickly moved on to the next topic of his mental rolodex of outrage. We almost missed the sexism: he slipped it between several other laugh-out-loud statements, which had the assembled journalists eating out of his hand.
“We need to break our virginity in a memorable way,” he said to laughter when he described the party’s first forthcoming national conference and the attendant teething issues.
The statement about Zulu followed just after this.
It’s difficult to confront sexism dished out as casually as that. Like the popular kid in the class, Malema has a way of creating a protective layer around himself in a room. He dishes out hilarious one-liners usually at some or other person’s expense and has everyone giggling along while he grins winningly. It’s hard to argue with that.
But I had to at least try. In the next round of questions I stuck up my hand and asked Malema to clarify his statements about Zulu, particularly in light of what he had said about the ANC. “I find your statements quite sexist.”
Malema was polite but unrepentant.
“When you behave like a street meid you are a street meid whether you are male or a female. We are not saying that only to her. If there is a male who behaves like that we’ll call him that too …There is no other description except street meid.”
It was a weak save but Malema was still the popular kid in the room. He joked about it, put up his fists to emulate Zulu’s supposed stance and had most in the room chuckling again.
ANC and sexism
As the comment proliferated on Twitter, South African author Margie Orford captured the ugliness underlying Malema’s choice of insult.
“[It’s a] weird use of apartheid insults and sexual discourse,” she tweeted. “[It] taps into older and deeper wounds than just calling someone a whore straight out.”
The choice of person, too ,is interesting. Zulu is a breath of fresh air in politics: someone who speaks frankly and unapologetically voices her opinion. This is not the sort of woman a certain kind of South African would like to see.
The worst part about Malema’s statements on Friday is that he had earlier spent at least 20 minutes calling out the ruling ANC itself for sexism. Its deployees in Parliament called the riot police in to manhandle a black woman from the EFF when she refused to leave the house, but did not do the same to a white man from the opposition DA.
“How do you arrest a black female and leave a white male?” bellowed Malema. “He is not touched by police because he is a male. That is sexism. That is what the ANC suffers from. Racism and sexism.”
Malema’s sudden championing of gender causes after a dubious history on the issue is nothing new.
It is a move that gender experts have slammed as opportunistic. The EFF’s top leaders are men and Malema has made some dodgy statements about women in the past. Most people are happy to let bygones be bygones, however, and allow Malema his new guise as a gender champion. It’s a welcome change, given the deathly silence on the issue from the majority of our political leaders.
But at Friday’s press conference, the mask slipped and old prejudices were revealed.
As Orford notes, South Africans’ relationship with gender and power relations is a complex one. Malema’s recent make-over as a champion of feminist issues can be only skin deep, until our politicians are prepared to have an honest discussion about how we view women in this country.