OPINION - Over the past decade we have all been witness to the degeneration of political discourse in our fledgling democracy, which we inherited from some of the greatest Struggle heroes of our time.
Instead of nurturing a badly bruised populace that emerged from the shackles of a pernicious apartheid system, some of our new wannabe leaders are doing irreparable harm to this rich legacy and destroying the fragile scaffolding needed to build a vibrant non-racial and non-sexist nation.
Indeed these new egotistical leaders have learnt well from their colonial masters, especially in terms of a racist canon that prescribed "governance by division".
It is now becoming commonplace for those such as Julius Malema, who are bankrupt in terms of political acumen, to deflect their inadequacy with
a ploy that reeks of myopia.
Particularly at anniversary celebrations of the EFF, he fastidiously makes disparaging comments about South Africans of Indian origin.
In recent days there have been many justifiable responses condemning Malema's vitriolic utterances.
The rationale of this rejoinder, though, is not to deal with the merits or demerits of those retorts, nor to add to those voices of protest by Indian community leaders, but to deal substantively with the question of opportunistic and demagogic leadership which Malema epitomises eminently.
Suffice it to say that one can find racists in all corners of South Africa. This certainly does not mean that all South Africans are racists and opportunists.
Furthermore, it is important to assert that racial profiling or stereotyping is the worst form of racism. The recent xenophobic attacks on foreigners in our country and the fascist killings of millions of innocent men, women and children in Nazi Germany bear adequate testimony to this sad indictment.
We also need to be reminded that our constitution makes it beholden to all who live in this beautiful country to work selflessly towards a socially just, non-racial and non-sexist society.
South Africa is in a state of fluidity, with major disruptions and contests changing the political, social and economic landscape of the country.
As a result, change is palpable and ubiquitous, especially as the nation strives to meet its human needs to accomplish a propitious transformation in a society which has been severely fractured by an apartheid legacy.
Accordingly, one cannot overemphasise the roles of leadership and inclusive group cohesiveness to effect change.
The direction of change in South Africa, therefore will depend on the manner in which both human and physical resources are mobilised by responsible leadership and the collective attitude of the citizenry toward change.
Political leadership therefore is critical to the future trajectory of South Africa.
The definition of a "leadership" is as diverse as the myriad books and articles written on the construct.
No matter the viewpoint from which the definition of leadership is viewed, a leader is one who exerts unusual influence and considerable power and one who makes things happen that would not happen otherwise.
He or she would work in the best interest of the nation and display malice towards no one.
Therefore, in the overall development of a country, leadership is an opportunity to serve and not a trumpet call to self-importance.
If indeed leadership is about nation-building and showing animosity towards none, then I am totally perplexed as to how demagogic opportunists such as Adolf Hitler of Germany, Senator Joseph McCarthy of the USA, Viktor Yushchenko of the Ukraine, Donald Trump of the USA, Benito Mussolini of Italy, Idi Amin of Uganda and South Africa’s own Malema have become leaders either of their respective political parties or their respective countries.
To understand the rise of such opportunistic leaders, it is necessary to comprehend the meaning of "demagogic leadership".
The word "demagogue" was coined from Greek and means "a popular leader or a leader of a mob, people or populace" or a "rabble-rouser".
Research further suggests that a demagogic leader gains popularity by exploiting prejudice and ignorance among ordinary people, stirring up the passion of the masses and preventing rational debate.
In essence, such opportunistic political leaders advocate immediate, forceful action to address a national crisis and exploit fundamental weaknesses in democratic dispensations to drum up support, particularly by making false claims and promises against adversaries and minorities.
They appeal directly to the emotions of the poor and uninformed, pursuing power, telling lies to stir up hysteria, exploiting crises to intensify popular support for their calls to immediate action and increased authority, and accusing moderate opponents of weakness or disloyalty to the nation.
Demagogic leaders can and generally do exploit a country which is divided by breaking established democratic institutions such as the rule of law.
Throughout history, demagogues have pandered to passion, prejudice, bigotry and ignorance, rather than reason.
They fashion themselves as men or women of the common people opposed to the elites, and their politics depends on a visceral connection with the people.
They manipulate this connection and the raging popularity it affords them for their own benefit and ambition, and threaten to or outrightly break established rules of conduct, institutions, and even the law.
The most fundamental demagogic technique is "scapegoating", that is, blaming the in-group’s troubles on an out-group, usually of a different ethnicity, religion or social class.
For example, McCarthy claimed that all the problems in the US resulted from “communist subversion”.
Hitler blamed Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I, as well as the economic troubles that came after.
This was central to his appeal and many people declared that the only reason they liked Hitler was because that he was against the Jews.
Fixing blame on the Jews gave Hitler a way to intensify nationalism.
Bringing this narrative closer to home, a few weeks ago Malema forcefully caught the public’s eye by making racist rants about a South African minority community of Indian origin, accusing it of being ‘"racist".
This was not the first time Malema had made similar racist remarks.
These crude racist comments are typical of Malema and his merry band of demagogues, suggesting that they are presenting such "facts" in the interest of the majority indigent blacks in South Africa. Nothing can be further from the truth.
Racism unfortunately is still part of the fabric of South African society, despite the fact that one of the fundamental pillars of our constitution prescribes non-racialism.
This does not detract from allegations that individual racist attitudes towards blacks do exist in the Indian community.
While racism is simply immoral, stereotyping a community is unjust. As mentioned previously though, racism is endemic in all societies, and it cannot be eradicated until individuals within those communities confront the "demon of racism" head-on.
At the same time, as a proud community with a rich Struggle and philanthropic history, the Indian community should not constantly have to defend its bona fides in South African society at large, especially not to the opportunistic and demagogic leaders of Malema’s ilk.
As former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon believes, “Defeating racism, tribalism, intolerance and all forms of discrimination will liberate us all, victim and perpetrator alike.”
We owe this to the future of South Africa, especially to prevent the types of negative repercussions of racist "chants" experienced.
More importantly, there is an elephant in the room and – the demagogic leadership forces not only within the EFF but also in other political parties are too preoccupied with the part of the truth in front of them to see the reality of the whole, and in the process many matters more urgent to the poor are being neglected.
After more than two decades of democracy, the nation is still contending with issues of poverty, inequality, homelessness, unemployment and hunger.
We continue to be a country of two worlds. On the one hand, we have the world of the few who live in posh suburbs with access to superior education, health care and other services.
On the other, we have the majority who still live in informal settlements and are poverty-stricken and denied basic services.
This is a crisis of the lack of transformative political leadership.
The crisis is responsible for South Africa’s political malaise and its social and structural injustices.
Strengthening political leadership is trepidatious, given the deeply engraved racist status quo that appeals to demagogic leaders such as Malema.
The deficit and crisis of ethical political leadership poses enormous challenges to South Africa. Demagogic and opportunistic leadership manifested by persistent human rights violations, bad governance, dysfunctional institutions, patronage, manipulation of ethnic differences, corruption and personalisation of power hinder the prevalence of authentic development and social justice.
They feed on the state, prey on the weak, use national resources for self-aggrandisement, and deprive citizens of the truth and their constitutional rights.
Strengthening authentic leadership is fundamental to the crisis, necessitating a moral imagination, creativity and networking of actors at all levels within our country.
Consequently, the response to poverty and inequality in South Africa is obvious and urgent.
No political democracy can survive and flourish if the mass of the people remain in poverty, without land, without tangible prospects for a better life. The situation only assists in the creation of opportunists and demagogic leadership.
South Africa is in dire need of visionary leadership. All it takes is a direction and a vision rather than an opportunistic path of leaping from one open door to another in the quest to obfuscate the truth.
All one has to do is to connect the dots in Malema’s short, impetuous political and entrepreneurial history and the truth will reveal itself.
You will notice that he constantly needs to project his leadership deficits by scapegoating vulnerable minorities. Remember this when you cast your vote.
The Latin proverb “It is absurd that a man should aspire to rule others who cannot rule himself” aptly summarises Malema’s leadership eccentricities.
Soni is an academic and writes in his personal capacity.