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Julius Malema

On Point

by Carlos Amato / 05.09.2011

Until he opens his mouth, Julius Malema’s importance in South African politics makes no sense. How can it be that such an unimpressive man wields such impressive power over his constituency? He is treacherous, flabby, cynical, unprepossessing, vain and venal. Most South Africans recognise him as a bozo.

But this bozo can talk the hind leg off a liberation movement. The expert impromptu address he gave to pacify his supporters outside Luthuli House last week offered yet more evidence that his oratory skill is his chief weapon. As Moeletsi Mbeki has noted, nobody else in the party can speak compellingly, without notes, for a full hour. One Robert Mugabe has a similar ability.

Born demagogues are rare creatures, but competent speechmaking is a learnable political skill – and Malema’s toxic articulacy is an indictment of the ANC’s neglect of the craft of oratory since liberation.

The revolt at Luthuli House was a comeuppance for Jacob Zuma; he is reaping what he and his adjutants sowed so smugly in Polokwane. Thuggery and insult is now the party’s default medium of dissent. Nuance, respect and substantive debate are all in the rubbish bin.

But this debasement of speech in the ANC dates back to much earlier than Zuma’s rise to power. The party’s fabric has been weakened by a long-standing addiction to weak, evasive language.

Juju breaks that addiction. He has the appearance of truthfulness to many because he speaks boldly and plainly, in volleys of peppery soundbytes. His nationalisation platform is economic insanity, but Malema makes it sound perfectly sane to a jobless, semi-literate youth.

Every slogan, every wisecrack is percussive, tight and “on point”, to borrow a trusty Youth League catchphrase. His fans share his flair for punchy rhetoric, as can be seen in the placards brandished outside Luthuli House.

Many miss Thabo Mbeki these days, but in many ways he paved the way for Malema, and not least in the field of political language. His jargon-soaked presidency made Malema’s demagogy an exhilarating novelty. (Zuma’s oratory is so shoddy it’s not even worth discussing).

Mbeki bored the living shit out of ordinary South Africans. Yes, his much celebrated “I am an African” address had some elegant if kitschy flourishes – but he intoned it as though it was a shopping list.

In general, Mbeki’s speeches and essays were so pompous and obfuscatory that when he did make a perceptive point, few remained wakker enough to understand it. Mbeki inspired a dire fashion for soporific speeches among his ministers, who all mimicked his sing-song, meandering delivery. Everyone tried to sound like a village pastor digesting a boozy lunch.

It wasn’t just a question of style. Waffle became a mode of dissimulation. The Mbeki administration’s biggest crimes – AIDS denialism, the arms deal, quiet diplomacy on Zim – were thinly hidden in a rolling fog of technocratic and sociological jargon.

Political language became an anaesthetic, a buffer against the pain of the poor. It was also used as a buffer against the labour of delivery. Mountains of grandiose policy documents were written, but few knew what they meant. Urgent problems had to be “addressed” rather than solved; this cosy duvet of a verb is beloved of powerful South Africans, because it’s exquisitely open-ended. If you “address” an issue, you merely waft some words at it. You pay it lip service.

Here’s George Orwell in a 1946 essay called Politics and the English Language: “A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

Of course, plain language can be just as false, as evasive and overblown. But in expert hands, plain speech bags more votes, and it’s being deployed in populist causes all over this broke and pissed-off world. Malema loves to compare himself to the young Mandela, but he has much more in common with Michele Bachmann.

Needless to say, now would be a good time for the ANC to locate another Mandela. But if that’s asking too much, they could settle for a responsible leader who can work a crowd.

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  1. A Free Can says:

    So, what was the final score?

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  2. old grumpypants says:

    What I find so disagreeable about this piece is that it places further emphasis on an aspect of South African politics that is already blown out of proportion and horribly overrated by the majority of our citizens – populism. There seems to be a suggestion that by placing even greater faith in it we will be able to rise above our collective challenges and miraculously reach agreement on a way to manage our economy and our common efforts towards a better society.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. South African politics is now horribly overwrought with charisma and undernourished on substance. For all of his weaknesses at least Mbeki had a plan and he was prepared to defend it. Consensus does not necessarily equal wisdom and politics in itself does not put food on the table. Maybe we should force all our young politicians to do stints of “community service” in middle managements of private busnisses so that they can understand how to make a difference in the real world.

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  3. Carlos says:

    @Old Grumpypants – the piece argues for clearer, bolder, braver communication from responsible political leaders, precisely to countervail the threat of destructive populism. But perhaps I didn’t argue that clearly or boldly enough.

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  4. Andy says:

    Grumpeth Pants… I don’t think this piece excuses the populism, but it goes a long way to help understand the magnetic pull of Malema. He’s got a great presence and he can work a crowd. Mbeki had a plan that was deeply flawed and he was so up his own arse he could barely articulate amongst all the obfuscation… in truth… we really need someone like Hani right about now.

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  5. Jurgen Teller says:

    I remember the days when Mahala was a really good pop culture magazine. Now it’s just another shouty lame white guilt political blog. Stick to what you know, send someone to a party they don’t want to go to and give them too much drugs.

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  6. YsterHart says:

    @Jurgen: Are you suggesting that because folks like a bit of drugs and a party, they cant have an opinion about politics? You knobhead.

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  7. Jurgen Teller says:

    I’m suggesting Mahala was good at that and they’re bad at this.

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  8. Mark M says:

    Totally agree Carlos.

    However, I find it ironic that you call for “clearer, bolder, braver communication from responsible political leaders” but take it upon yourself to fill your own piece with so much hyperbolic verbiage that it becomes utterly meaningless and honestly a bit of a literary wank!

    Andy – think you need to heed the call and tell your writers to keep it concise and to the point. Otherwise Mahala will scare away the people who should really be reading it, instead of preaching to the converted.

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  9. Mark M says:

    * Scratch that last point. It should read – “and continue preaching to the converted” *

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  10. Andy says:

    Jurgen you’re a douche… been around much?

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  11. fingerbang fan #1 says:

    i’m rather interested in the clarity that malema brings to the table. he might be just another comrade with blighted aspirations of what the revolution is, was and will be. It might be unclear as to what he really is getting at as his metaphoric jargon gets snippeted in the for-profit press, but clarity he brings in calling to life the middle class. he scares the living shit out of so many, he has become a threat to you and me, because we’re so privileged not to really be affected by the real ills running amok in South Africa: poverty, disease, gross unemployment (with no prospect of upward mobilization) etc etc. instead of lambasting the real causes for gripe we have (yet a(fucking)gain) squired the shit going on around us on the shoulders of a little demagogue who gets all the attention he could ever ask for.

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  12. fingerbang fan #1 says:

    you know mandela was almost hung for treason, you know that he was a terrorist, a comrade, a rabble-rouser before he became Jesus. you are being myopic if you think that Jesus is just going to appear again in the shape of a younger Mandela. and what exactly would that Jesus do different to that of which Malema is doing (in an admittedly skewed way): bringing hope to the hopeless.

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  13. Andy says:

    Maybe Malema needs 27 years breaking rocks to mellow him out a bit? And friends like Walter and Albert, not Fikile and Yengeni

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  14. old grumpypants says:

    @ff#1, Malema is a threat to the welfare of EVERY South African, even those who support him so passionately now. If he had his way this country would be transformed into another Zimbabwe in record time. Where would our poor go then? Botswana? Mozambique? Namibia?

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  15. Anonymous says:

    Less discourse, less intellectual wanks – MORE INTERCOURSE!

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  16. Lewis says:

    This guy is going to be President….FUCK! I feel so sad whenever I hear him speak, South Africa should be one of the best places in the world to live. If you’re white you might as well leave now.

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  17. I support Malema says:

    At least he’s honest about being a dishonest politician. He has balls, and he has vision for the country.

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  18. bertish says:

    what bothers me most is the extent of the denialism of the writer and (most of the)bloggers on this article. to finger point at malema is missing the point entirely. and to denigrate this issue as “populism” is to bury your head in the sand.

    fact is that there are 25m or so “have-nots” in our country. that is the reality. this is not “populism” as you intellectuals term it – it is in fact “democracy”.

    if malema goes there will be another “populist”. and then another. and, somewhere along the road, one may be a lot more militant that malema is.

    until the issues of malema’s constituency are addressed, SA will continue sliding down into the abyss.

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  19. plaintalk says:

    @I support Malema – you are exactly the kind of supporter Julius wants – totally devoid and incapable of original thought ..”at least he’s honest about being dishonest”..? Fuck – you must be a politician to spew that kind of sewerage! And I’d love to hear you explain his ‘vision’ for the country…
    He has balls,I grant you that..but then so does my bull-terrier,and I’m not about to let him take over the running of my household – although I have no doubt he’d do a better job of it than Julius would.
    God forbid Malema is ever handed the Presidency.Incredible to think of it even as a possibility.The fact that Zuma is our President indicates that something has gone terribly awry in South Africa politics,just as it was plain to see that something had gone wrong in America when George W. Bush took power in the USA.
    That Malema is poised as a possible leader of this country,or the fact that this even be considered,should make every sane citizen of this nation shudder with horror.

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  20. Nero says:

    All the Steve Biko tweets today made me think about this thread and the tragedy of his death. Aside from the loss of a human being, I find it especially sad that a voice of calm rational thought was confronted in such a brutal manner. I don’t know if that was the message that the state intended at the time, but a clear message was sent nonetheless.

    Is it any wonder that our political discourse is so easily influenced by the voices of anger and mistrust rather than the voices of reason?

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