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Analysis: Why is Julius Malema so angry?

Is Malema really angry about the injustices he sees around him, or is it all theatre?

Analysis by Sarah Evans

We all know that voice. It’s the voice, filled with conviction, that gets Julius Malema’s audience cheering in agreement at rallies; stirred up by his passion, and his supposed refusal to be polite when all he sees around him are extreme injustices. It’s the voice that has the potential to reduce his audience, often journalists at press conferences, to giggling, awkward sycophants; uncomfortably shifting in their chairs at the rudeness, or the truth, that comes out of Malema’s mouth. They appear to be partly too afraid of being shamed should they stand up and leave, and partly, secretly – maybe even unconsciously – starstruck.

That voice makes an almost daily appearance in the news, and this week was no different. On Thursday afternoon, EFF leader Malema verbally laid into a member of Afriforum at court (more on that later) whose legs were blocking Malema’s way. Another day, another scuffle.

“Liar! Liar” bellowed Malema when the man protested that his legs were not, in fact, blocking anyone’s way. There it was again: that voice.

Whether it’s over legroom or mass poverty, when Malema fires off in public, he does so with fury and incandescence. 

It begs the question: why is Malema so angry?

In the news

Almost daily, there is a news report about how the EFF and its leader have responded with aggression to an event, or a person. Sometimes they respond with outright violence, and other times, Malema in particular responds with threats or the use of violent imagery. Just this week, Malema and fellow EFF MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi appeared in court for allegedly assaulting a police officer. Here’s the footage of the incident in question:

In September, some EFF supporters vandalised some Clicks stores in protest over a racist advert. Malema himself was not involved in the violence, but called on his supporters to be “combat ready” before the protests.

In the lead up to the events in Senekal last week (read more about that here), Malema tweeted a picture of a machine gun. Addressing supporters in that town, when men accused of killing farmer Brendin Horner appeared in court, Malema used equally incendiary language and imagery.

“We are tired of living like slaves and adopted children in our own country. We will rather die with our boots on. If they want to kill us, let them shoot us now, for our own country, for defending our democracy, for defending our own rights. We are prepared to die, in defence of our right, in defence of this freedom,” he told a crowd of supporters.

Those supporters went on to trash the streets of Senekal, overturning dustbins and threatening protesting farmers and khaki-clad right-wingers with violence. (The khaki lot were equally threatening, and, as we explained here, the term “farm murders’ is often abused by the far right as a dog whistle for those who want to plug the white genocide conspiracy theory.)

But is Malema genuinely upset about these things? Or is it all theatre?

History

Apparently, Malema has always had a bad temper. Fiona Forde, in her 2011 book, “An Inconvenient Youth”, writes that Malema had always had “a physical temper to match his vicious tongue”.

In the run-up to the Congress of South African Students (Cosas) election, for example, Malema allegedly “pummeled” a fellow comrade’s face so badly that the man’s mother apparently refused to let him leave home, because of how bad he looked. According to Forde, the friend’s mother wanted to lay charges but a “small donation” from Malema allegedly put paid to that idea.

Malema became president of Cosas in 2001.

Malema also refused to debate with the DA’s then parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko ahead of the 2011 local government elections, later referring to her as Helen Zille’s “tea girl”. Then there was the time he threatened to burn down the prison Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was in when she was convicted of fraud in 2003 (she didn’t end up spending time in jail).

Madikizela-Mandela, with whom Malema enjoyed a close relationship, euphemistically called Malema’s behaviour “rebellious” and said it was “part of growing up”.

But now Malema is a 39-year-old man of substantial means. He is not old by the standards of South African politicians, many of whom are well into their sixties and seventies, but surely he can now be considered “grown up”? As a parliamentarian, he has earned over R1 million a year for at least four years, and prior to that his earnings were high (and suspicious) enough to prompt a tax inquiry into where the money was coming from. Malema quietly settled that inquiry.

Asymmetry

Political analyst Ralph Mathekga says the contradiction between Malema’s message and his lifestyle is problematic.

“It’s a typical story of the asymmetry between the political career and what people do. Why is Julius Malema so angry? It is necessary for him to sustain his politics. You look at his position, everything seems to be well-calculated to sustain his politics, which is the politics of disruption.”

Mathekga says Malema wants to disrupt the system and make it seem as though he is separate from it. Yet he has benefitted handsomely from precisely that system, both through his official salary and, allegedly, through more suspicious channels.

Recently, the Sunday Times reported that the State Capture Commission of Inquiry was going to subpoena Malema’s banking records, allegedly in connection with the looting of VBS. Malema has said the commission is welcome to do so and that he has nothing to hide.

But Mathekga said that in reaction to those the allegations, Malema “turns up the temperature” on his “anger” in public.

“It’s deliberate. He rehearses his anger,” he said.

Real anger

But Dr Sithembile Mbete, lecturer of political science at the University of Pretoria, says Malema reflects a real anger at the injustices of our society.

“Julius Malema is angry the way lots of black South Africans are angry. He just articulates it in a spectacular way using spectacle. Anger is a legitimate response to a lot of the inequality and injustice we see in SA. And (to) a lot of the brutal ways many people live and die in SA. I don’t think that the anger is illegitimate or weird or anything. I think it’s a normal response to a society like SA,” she says.

She says Malema does not just harness other people’s anger: he reflects it.

Politics of aggression

Mbete says that Malema is formed in a “politics of aggression”.

“Malema’s political formation is in a tradition of politics that is about harnessing anger and violence and aggression. So he is politically formed in a politics of aggression and I think that we definitely see that in the way in which he organises his politics. In person he’s pretty mild-mannered. He’s also not a particularly rude person.

“But the politics that he uses – or the way in which he knows how to do politics is a very forceful and aggressive one. And the resonance is legitimate. Many people have reason to be very angry. And so he captures that. Of course how that anger and aggression is linked to political solutions or progress or policy is a different question,” she says.

Fascist?

Author of “Rebels and Rage: Reflecting on #FeesMustFall”, Professor Adam Habib, said Malema’s poor upbringing doesn’t excuse his behaviour. Malema famously grew up in the township of Seshego in Polokwane and was raised by his grandmother. His mother was a domestic worker.

“Because of his deep marginalisation (as a child) you could say he had reason to be angry. But (former Cambodian dictator) Pol Pot and (Nazi leader Adolf) Hitler were also a product of their social circumstances,” said Habib, who is also the Outgoing Wits Vice-Chancellor.

“The same is also true of rapists and serial killers. While that may explain their behaviour, it cannot excuse it. Then we’ll be excusing all kinds of abhorrent behaviour. The fact that you had a hard time doesn’t mean you can go around raping people.

“Many people come from abhorrent circumstances and become useful members of society and leaders. Yes, Malema had reasons to be angry given his social circumstances, but so did many others. Anger issues at a particular moment in your youthful existence should not disqualify you from playing a productive role going forward,” said Habib.

While Malema is often described as a populist, Habib believes the EFF is a fascist project.

“There is a difference between a populist and a fascist and it is an important distinction for political reasons, because how we respond to fascism is different than how we respond to populism. Populists are actors focused on spectacle who mobilise on anger in society. They simplify, they do not grapple with public policy or how to resolve the issues… Fascism is more than that. It is a coherent political project that is defined by three or four features.”

Firstly, Habib says, it has a “nativist political agenda”. For Hitler, this meant promoting the interests of blue-eyed blonde-eyed Germans. “In this case, it is folks with black or brown pigmentation and associated characteristics.”

The second characteristic is a militant and violent culture. The third is a commandist hierarchical, statist attitude. “The EFF meets criteria (for fascism). It is more than populist. It is a coherent fascist project that uses democracy to subvert it (democracy),” he said.

Mbete counters that the EFF’s politics are more sophisticated than the furore we get to see on television and at rallies, and that Malema deliberately uses spectacle to get his point across because this gets him media coverage. This  is how a party with about 10% of the national vote is able to occupy such a large space in public life.  

Whatever the EFF is, and whatever politics Malema uses to achieve its goals, one thing is clear: the politics of aggression are very effective. And Malema is very, very angry.