by Nomalanga Mkhize*
REMEMBER the time, in July 2011, when Johann Rupert reportedly described the African National Congress Youth League under Julius Malema as being like a “mosquito in one’s tent”? When I read that, I remember thinking, “Oh there’s going to be hell to pay for this comment.” It was folly to be dismissive of the upstart politician who had the vigour of youth on his side and was gifted with sharp social insight.
Three months after the reported mosquito comment, in October 2011, Malema led 1,000 young people on a 50km economic freedom march from Johannesburg to Pretoria. They marched through the night with Malema alongside them. Since then Malema, now the commander-in-chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), has proven that he will brook no obstacles to his political ambitions and is a formidable political force who has captured the sentiments of 1-million voters.
But why did someone like Rupert seemingly underestimate Malema by characterising him as a minor irritant? Perhaps in part he was deceived by the caricatures of “Malema the buffoon” that were common in mainstream media. For a long time there was a racist subtext about Malema in media that constructed him in the trope of the idiotic, childish African leader with the “thick black accent”. This image of Malema spawned many jokes, drawing in particular on his matric results, specifically making fun of the fact that he did woodwork as a subject.
The reality, of course, is that Malema’s matric results were not a reflection of his intelligence but of the severely dysfunctional state of Bantu education, which especially affected those who were educated from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. Malema’s grades did not look much different from many people I grew up with in the rural areas.
However, this caricaturing of Malema demonstrated to me just how much mainstream media and non-African language political discourse blindly uses suburban experience as its point of departure in unpacking South African society. To his opponents in his hometown of Seshego, Limpopo, Malema surely never appeared to be a fool; indeed, they experienced him as a very strategic, authoritarian and fierce competitor in local ANC politics.
More important than the media’s gaze, perhaps Rupert took his cue from the ANC itself.
Perhaps Rupert bought into the notion that no one is bigger than the ANC; that while Malema was noisy, he would be nobody without the ANC. This is why, after Malema’s expulsion from the ANC, there were many predictions of his political death. The rise of the EFF shows that these predictions were out of touch with the rumbling sentiment of youth discontent in SA. Even when the ANC has its finger on the pulse about the national mood, it still tends to operate from the view that the majority of South Africans are unlikely to abandon it wholesale.
Though South Africans will not abandon the ANC overnight, there is a seismic generational shift under way in the movement. What will be passing is the era of the Ruperts and the Cyril Ramaphosas, a cohort of leaders that emerged out of the Convention for a Democratic SA (Codesa) with a template for how we would build a new society.
Today the flagship political vision the Codesa generation is offering is the National Development Plan. But for a growing number of young black South Africans, plans and government 12-point strategies are just no longer enough reassurance.
In this context the EFF, with its 6% of the vote, has shifted the tone and sense of urgency on these matters. What happens between now and 2019 in the political arena is going to mark the politics of this emerging generation for the next two decades. At this juncture it is not clear what kind of political dynamics will emerge.
What is clear is that, for better or for worse, Malema and his EFF peers are leading the way into the future and are boldly defining the mood for a generation. Anyone with a commitment to SA should conduct their politics and activism with that reality in mind.
*Source bdlive. Mkhize is a lecturer in the history department at Rhodes University.