Adriaan Groenewald sits down with the ex-ANCYL president as part of Business Report's Leadership Platform series.
Business Report Leadership Platform (BRLP): Did you have ambitions or a drive to achieve from a very young age or is it something that has naturally evolved?
Malema: I grew up in politics and that’s the only thing I’ve done for a living. At the age of nine, I was approached by a comrade who was a man in a position to train us with ANC slogans and discipline and we started there. It was like playing – you know when people go to football practice, we would go as if we were going to football practice and then take a detour, we’d go to a secret place.
Then it became my life, and when we got more exposure we realised that this thing is bigger than we thought it was and it was then built in us that we need to fight a system of oppression, of inequalities. And the simple explanation that was given to us why we were in poor conditions was because of a man-made decision that made black people, and Africans in particular, to suffer from poverty and a white person was responsible for that and with the defeat of the white person it would mean we could live like them.
It was as simple as that. We thought it was a cause worth fighting for because it would then better our lives and we would be in a better condition. That’s where I come from and the ambition has always been that.
BRLP: How do you feel about your life so far?
Malema: Well I have no regrets. I’ve lived the life of a political animal and I’m very happy that I’ve lived that life – I still live that life.
I grew up in a township where most young people of my age surrendered to alcohol, drug abuse and criminal activities. Most of those I grew up with are either alcoholic, or jail birds, but I grew up differently. They would come together to smoke dagga and all manner of things including brew and all that, I was never part of that because it tells of the discipline of the organisation.
BRLP: What do you regard as the prime tasks and responsibilities of a great leader?
Malema: A great leader must listen to the people and implement the aspirations of those people. A great leader must be a good listener and be grounded among the masses, not be far ahead of the masses and call yourself a leader because when you look back you are likely not to find those masses.
A leader who does all those things, always getting direction from the people of our country, that person is a great leader. You can’t listen to a faction, you can’t listen to your business associates, you can’t listen to your family members – once you’re a leader you’re a leader of everybody, including those who don’t want you. Your ears must be open to everybody, including those who don’t want you; they must feel comfortable talking to you about their issues.
That represents the calibre of leadership that we need – the leadership that is not in the pockets of capital because most leaders receive (kick)backs – when they ask money they tell you don’t put it into an account, they tell you don’t give me a cheque – they take backs and once they take backs from capital there is no way they will tell capital where to get off because they are compromised.
BRLP: In your opinion are you successful as a leader?
Malema: You know, we have been very successful. To get the country talking is not as easy as that. People of note in big institutions, they give speeches where everyone is forced – those who love and are patriotic about this country – they are forced to listen to them, that when they are finished speaking no-one can remember what they said.
So we got this country talking; we got this country beginning to appreciate that compromises made before 1994 actually cost us a lot. We needed to find a way of taking our people out of poverty and we succeeded in putting that agenda firmly on the table. When President Jacob Zuma was speaking, there were areas when I closed my eyes, it was as if the ANC youth leader was speaking, and for me that is clear success for the youth league.
BRLP: What leadership lessons have you learnt over the past year?
Malema: One lesson that I’ve learnt is that you must never rely on an individual in a revolution. You must rely on the wisdom in the revolution and its collective leadership. Individuals change, especially when they assume positions of power and they begin to show their true colours. That’s a lesson I have learnt.
BRLP: Knowing that lesson now, if you look back over the past year, what would you have done differently had you known this?
Malema: What we would have done is actually to elect leaders who work within the collective and who would then be able to nurture and give guidance to the youth instead of destroying them.
BRLP: How would you define your personal leadership style?
Malema: I don’t have any personal leadership style. You know when you become the president of the youth league you assume a particular leadership style by virtue of occupying that office. You come as an innocent young person, but get to be transformed by that responsibility because it requires of you to be outspoken, to be radical and to be militant – to be uncompromising unless persuaded otherwise.
BRLP: So you can’t say my style is the following?
Malema: No, that is not how we were taught.
BRLP: So are you saying then that one’s style is inextricably linked to the position, whether in the corporate environment, your business, or the youth league?
Malema: Absolutely. When you are assuming a responsibility of ANC chaplain general, you ought to behave in a particular way befitting an individual occupying that office. When you are the president of the Veteran’s League, you behave in a particular way, or the president of the ANC. So it’s not about your leadership style, that office, it has been designed and whoever is going to get into it, must fit into that design otherwise you will not be relevant.
BRLP: You have displayed unique abilities to raise issues and be confrontational – are you a leader who is also able to listen to divergent views and build consensus?
BRLP: You don’t necessarily come across in the media as a consensus-driven leader; you just come across as confrontational.
Malema: I’m not confrontational. I’m a consensus leader. I am forthright, not confrontational, I’m forthright.
BRLP: But with that journalist, it seemed confrontational.
Malema: That was something that happened that should never have happened. That was a confrontation between two people who engaged in some disrespectful activities and that’s why we were quick to apologise, it was a regrettable incident.
But when it comes to issues, especially political issues, I raise these openly without fear or favour and without diplomacy – I’m not a trained diplomat, I’m a radical political activist – and my issues will come as they are and if you have a problem with them you can respond accordingly. And diplomats, if they are worried about the diplomatic part, will find a way of putting diplomacy into them.
I am a youth activist, I’m not a diplomat. So I’m very forthright and I’m very honest and I hate pretenders. I know hate is a very strong word, but pretenders are very dangerous because they’ve got the potential to derail the revolution.
So I want people who say when they’re in, they’re in. Not one leg in and one leg outside. Those who are opposed, they must be able to say no, we don’t agree and then we need to engage from that point of view. I must be persuaded and people must be prepared to be persuaded as well by myself. I’ve been defeated many times on issues and I’ve always accepted that that’s the direction we need to take.
BRLP: I asked a waiter yesterday – a black waiter – while I was having lunch, what would you want to ask Julius Malema? And he said, “Are you going to be the next president of South Africa?” What would you say to him?
Malema: (Lots of laughter) No, that question doesn’t even cross my mind. Like I told you, I have been involved without any expectations and even now I do not expect anything. People of my age and people that I have led, actually are now in government and leading in positions of responsibility.
It’s not easy to be a president of South Africa; it’s not an easy task.
It shouldn’t be either – it comes with a huge responsibility. And I love my privacy, I love my parties, I love chilling and walking freely without any restrictions.
Adriaan Groenewald is the lead contributor to the BR Leadership Platform. He is also the managing director and co-founder of Leadership Platform (www.leadershipplatform.com). Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, contact Business Report editor Ellis Mnyandu at email@example.com.