Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema’s sweeping into the breach has stirred a shifting of social and political sands, writes Fiona Forde.
Johannesburg - Never one to play a shy hand, Julius Malema, or Mao-lema as his party hacks call him, took the South African Parliament by storm on the day he was sworn in.
It was May 21, a fortnight after this year’s general elections in which his new socialist party won 25 seats on the back of more than a million votes. To hammer home their victory, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) decided to take their revolution to Parliament.
The men waded into the national assembly wearing bright red workers’ overalls, hard hats and gumboots while the women wore the traditional gear of the “home help”.
A first for Parliament, without a doubt, but this was playtime for the populists. It wasn’t the first time that Malema had stuffed his ample frame into the ill-fitting onesie with his paunch forcing the stiff cloth to gather around his fat buttocks.
The overalls made their debut at some stage along the election campaign when he began to talk up his revolution, promising a lifelong socialist festival to the poor if they would dare trust him with their hard-earned vote.
But there was something so utterly false about it all. What kind of a hardened revolutionary would feel the need to dress up for the part, to borrow the working man’s clothes in a mechanical attempt to make his message work?
Though the overalls were the perfect complement to the red berets, the signature caps of resistance that the EFFs adopted not long after their launch, the memories of Malema with his Breitling watches, designer shoes and flashy cars were still too fresh to fool anyone. He was like a populist in drag the day he became an MP.
The attire to one side, though, the rest is familiar territory for Malema. During his latter years in the ANC when he pounded the tarmac extolling the virtues of the ruling party, he began selling the idea of a socialist South Africa.
For him, it was the last stage of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR), the propagandistic creed by which the ANC stands but which few of its leaders dare mention in any kind of meaningful way in these modern times.
“We have three areas of strategic influence, which the NDR seeks to attain: political power, economic power and social power,” he once told me while at the peak of his power in the ANC, long before the EFF was even a flicker in his mind.
“We are at the beginning,” he answered, when I asked him to rate the progress of the so-called revolutionary project on a scale of one to 10.
“Nineteen-ninety-four was the ushering in of one of the aspects of the NDR, which is political power”, while social power towards “a non-sexist, non-racial, democratic South Africa” was a work in progress. The big one, economic power, was where his mind was focused then when he began the call to nationalise the country’s mineral resources.
“Is socialism the end stage of the NDR?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, even though the ANC would insist it was a multiclass, broad-church structure, rarely describing itself as a socialist party.
“We have a responsibility to safeguard the identity of the ANC as multiclass, an organisation that seeks to liberate our people,” he said in defence. “Our immediate task now is the liberation of our people in an economic sense. As to what happens after, we will decide.’
It was clear that some form of socialism was going to be the inevitable consequence of his wielding his way to power, even though then, around 2009 and 2010, socialism was a dirty word he dared only whisper.
“You see, people are afraid of the word socialism and you must not pronounce it a lot. It will scare them,” he was careful to explain. “I might have houses. I might have watches. That’s what the economic system dictates now. But when we’ve got an economic system that says that everything we have we need to bring together and share among ourselves, I will be the first one to surrender. I’ve got no problem with socialism.
“I’ve got a problem with socialists who want to hijack the ANC and without giving this phase of our revolution a chance to unfold. They want to take us immediately to socialism. That will have serious consequences.”
Yet look at him now, steering a socialist juggernaut at breakneck speed as the proud head of a party that describes itself as being of the Marxist-Leninist tradition and the Frantz Fanon school of thought.
If anyone was going to go there, it was always going to be Malema. For the past five or so years he has been shrewdly articulating the racial and social anger that continues to bubble beneath the surface of South African society.
He dared say what many felt but could not bring themselves to put words to. He hit on society’s raw nerve and simply thrived on the chaos he was creating because it was awakening a new kind of militancy among millions of South Africans, many of whom were falling into step behind him.
Madikizela-Mandela had played many years before him while her then-husband, Nelson, was serving life imprisonment.
In much the same manner as he does now, Madikizela-Mandela fanned the flames in townships across South Africa and as a wild revolutionary figure she preached to the masses with her rafter-raising words. Like him, she was fearless and radical and pushed too close to the edge. Like her he was a political entrepreneur and though he is now operating in an environment of ample opportunity, he is tapping into the same constituencies and appeals to the same mentality that she once did.
Just as the past is beginning to recede into history, Malema is bringing it back to life as he casts the minds of millions back to the Struggle era, reminding them of what they fought for, who they fought against and why the battle is still far from over.
Unwittingly or otherwise, he has started a social tug of war that is fiercely playing out in South Africa’s interregnum.
That ancient term – “interregnum” – was used to describe the period of time that lapsed between the death of a royal sovereign and the enthronement of a successor.
It allowed for a break with the past and it harboured expectations of change that would eventually unfold during the justitium, or transition.
In the 1930s, the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci took the concept of the interregnum into socio-political thinking and used it to define extraordinary periods of social and political change during which “new frames” that are being introduced to make the “old frames” useless are still in the stage of design. It is a period of limbo, a time when there is little clarity and hardly any knowing and when nothing is as yet complete.
“The old is dying, and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms,” Gramsci once argued.
In 1982, the late Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer addressed the New York Institute for the Humanities and talked about “living in the interregnum” in South Africa as apartheid was nearing an end.
“Historical co-ordinates don’t fit life any longer; new ones, where they exist, have couplings not to the rulers, but to the ruled,” she contemplated.
All these years later and South Africans are yet again “living in the interregnum”, though it is different from the one Gordimer talked of. This period is often referred to by the ruling ANC as a second transition, but described by Malema as the coming revolution.
It is hard to credit that it is Malema, a populist ranter, who is attempting to define the new frame, hollering through his hand-held megaphone. It is even more difficult to believe that there are a million and more people ready to afford him the chance. Most astounding of all, perhaps, is the fact that he is operating in an open terrain with not a single competitor in sight.
There is nothing to suggest that Malema will succeed, of course. But if one considers his life story, his fighting nerve and his fearless outlook, there is every good reason to believe he will die trying. This is no revolutionary simpleton.