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An Inconvenient Youth

by Brandon Edmonds / 18.10.2011

In Mike Judge’s underrated dystopian comedy about America in 500 years , Idiocracy (2006), the biggest movie of the moment is called “Ass”. It wins 8 Oscars and amounts to little more than a bare white ass facing the audience with a fart soundtrack. I was reminded of it several times wading through Fiona Forde’s dire new book on Julius Malema, An Inconvenient Youth. It is a patchwork text, neither far-reaching or intimate enough to be biography, nor acute or convincing enough to register as social analysis, and abjectly written, poorly paced, edited and structured. It never once transcends its expedient roots in journalism, a journalism trafficking in superficially obvious assertions and borrowed insights. “It started as a newspaper piece… a couple of pieces,” Forde admits. Not that books based on news stories are necessarily bad. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood detailing a small town family slaying is for all time. It was Capote who famously flung a zinger at Jack Kerouac’s telegraphic prose: “That is typing, not writing”. Same applies. There is nothing original, necessary or compelling about Forde’s work. Retailing at R150, you’d be far better served blowing the cash on a nice breakfast with someone interesting.

I’ll prove it you.

Before we get to the content as such, let’s endure the book’s style. Forde writes like a first-year Unisa politics major. She forces complexity into mildly quotable nullity. Her professional life as a journalist has reduced her prose to Sunday paper encapsulations fit for quick scanning. Writing made of air. Writing grounded in cliché. So Malema is a “a young political genius” who never stops “hitting on a raw nerve” while exploiting the anger that “continues to bubble beneath the surface of society and the tensions that cast a long and lasting light on the darker side of life”. You’ll agree the imagery makes no sense. Forde repeatedly invokes the tired Romantic categories of darkness and light. This isn’t analysis. It’s page-filler. It adds nothing to the understanding of Malema, her subject. The book heaves with this ineffectual drek. “Malema was only human at the end of the day,” Forde writes, demonstrating the kind of mind-blowing insight awaiting you between her pages.

The ANC-YL prez is, for Forde, who apparently had unprecedented access, hours of one-on-one time, little of which has amounted to anything valuable, a “product of poverty, politics, power and a racial past of which he won’t let go, he, and all he stands for, are complex.” That may be but this sentence and the bland import it offers is far from complex. It is commonplace. Totally freaking obvious. Sentences like it riddle a book stuck in the kind of routine, ankle-deep sociology characterizing mainstream newspapers.

“The ANC post-liberation is not the same as the ANC that fought for liberation.” Laughably broad strokes masquerading as cogency. On it goes. “There are no certainties, least of all where Malema is concerned.” Gee I wish I had written that. While we can’t expect the lasting majesty of Boswell on Johnson or Deutscher on Trotsky from a book so hastily conjured from current news stories, we can (and must) expect good writing. Instead we get this: “One day he wasn’t there and the next, there he was, ploughing the socio-political landscape like an unguided missile, with little or no let up ever since.” A metaphor as mixed as a banana smoothie. How does an unguided missile plough a landscape?

Forde’s book is as strong as her journalism has been on Malema’s business dealings in Limpopo, anatomizing the warren of trusts and fronts through which he’s allegedly profited from government tenders, but her writing reads like heavy breathing down a phone: “It’s a dark and dirty world in which anything is possible.” Outright dumb in places. “He had become the zeitgeist of the times, of the ‘new’ ANC.” The word “zeitgeist” already means “spirit of the times” making “of the times” redundant. Again and again the prose suffers from an absence of patient editing.

The effort-reward ratio is askew. A long stretch of the book traces the evolution of the ANC Youth League, a past Forde suggests Malema has mastered and manipulates, but our reward for sticking with her through the history lesson is peanuts. “It has been a slow process,” she concludes. “Which the youth has steered with strategic steps until they got to where they are today.” Oh okay. The shallow limits of what we might call Forde’s “journalistic approach” are exposed when she projects her own professional values onto the inner life of her subject. She debunks the G for woodwork / he’s an idiot take on Malema in this passage: “he is enormously clever and his ability to manipulate information – one of the key definitions of intelligence – is as remarkable as his ability to recall it, which is what makes him the cunning and wily character that he is and a master at exploiting opportunity.” Beyond the too-easy use of adjectives (“wily” and “cunning”) over analysis, notice how self-serving her take is. I’m not sure the ‘ability to manipulate information’ is a key definition of intelligence? But it certainly is a skill every journalist needs to master. Manipulate in the neutral sense of compiling and synthesizing information but also in the sense of evaluating to mount an argument. Forde doesn’t have the true biographer’s uncanny ability to disappear from the narrative enough to allow the subject to appear on their own terms.

Anyway, the last and best evidence of Forde’s terrible prose style comes when Malema discovers he’s a pop: “He needed something to hold on to and he pressed his palms into the steering wheel, but his hands were already wet with sweat and he couldn’t keep his grip. He was in a state of shock.” This may as well be The Young & The Restless. Sweaty palms! Really? Did that even happen? Did we need to know? Is it conveyed with affect or originality? No.

How about the content? Well, Forde’s notion of the “new ANC” really amounts to a party leaning towards the authoritarian Chinese-model of ‘managed democracy’ (cadre deployment, state controlled-media, rigged elections, corporatism) which is “less disciplined and more fractious” than it used to be. No kidding. You’ll find versions of this depiction all over local media. It is not new. While her concluding stance on Malema is reliably glib: he is a “mix of the past and the present, of the psycho-social and the structural in a particular blend at a given time.” Again, this adds nothing. It’s a swirl of middle-brow candy floss. (How did this get published? Seriously.) She’s only been in the country since 2007 or so. Forde’s analysis feels contrived, underdone and inorganic. As if she’s spent a lot of time nodding and taking notes rather than working out an original view. As she put it in an interview: “I had a lot of catching up to do.”

The best ideas in the book by far are courtesy of Wits Professor, Achile Mbembe, who suggests national political life is a now ‘a permanent carnival’, famously elaborated by Bakhtin, with normality suspended, a time increasingly menacing and surreal. He brilliantly defines the post-liberation State as a ‘hybrid colossus’ mixing ‘the authoritarianism of Apartheid’ with the ‘cronyism of the Bantustan era’ and fragments of democracy. While situating Malema and the like in a tradition of ‘lumpen radicalism’ in which “fantasies of male power, control and desire have always been deeply entangled with…an almost insatiable appetite for money, luxuries and women.” Mbembe should have written this book. That quote vividly suggests what might have been. It took many hours to read An Inconvenient Youth. Trust me, given how shitty it is, I would much rather have watched Ass.

*Author Fiona Forde and struggle stalwart Ronnie Kasrils will discuss the book tonight at The Fugard Theatre, Caledon Street, District 6, Cape Town at 17:30 for 18:00.

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