For Sello Julius Malema, any political opponent or critic is nothing but segata marokgwana, a derogatory Sepedi term for small boy or non-entity.
This label was reserved for anyone who stood up to his bullying tactics. The victims ranged from former Limpopo premier Sello Moloto to branch members.
I was once Malema’s small boy, even though I am a few months his senior.
It is puzzling that for someone who couldn’t stand apartheid, he still exploits humiliating names such as boy, or tea girl – another offensive word he exclusively uses for the DA’s parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko – to disarm his opponents.
I first met Malema in 2002 at Luthuli House when he was Congress of South African Student (Cosas) president. I was an intern, he was a slim, but still fiery, students’ (pupils rather) leader, hardly out of his teens. His claim to fame was to lead a group of rascals who robbed poor hawkers on the street of Johannesburg. But my assignment was to interview this rabble-rouser for his organisation’s campaign to support Winnie Madikizela- Mandela, who faced criminal charges. Ten years later, Madikizela-Mandela supports Malema for his disciplinary troubles. What an inverse but amusing historical coincidence.
As a TV journalist then, my assignment forced me to get closer to him.
A senior colleague warned me that I should expect to meet “a Mugabe in the making”. Was he right? You be the judge.
There he was, in a white ANC Youth League T-shirt and a grey Irish cap. No expensive shoes or designer clothes. No expensive watch. No Range Rover. Just an angry-looking, militant young man
He was surrounded by a group of teenagers. To my relief, he was friendly, punctuating the interview with a bit of banter. He managed to defuse what I expected to be a tense atmosphere. Actually, he offered me a youth league t-shirt “in case you are not anti-ANC”.
That was my first face-to-face and up-close encounter with Malema, whose rise shook the South African national discourse and whose fall is still a subject of theoretical and analytical equations.
We reconnected three years later when we returned to our home province of Limpopo at different times. We were still buddies (sort of) because he would gloat to youth league leaders that: “I appeared on TV for the first time because of this man”. We kept in touch, even though he kept his private life off bounds. But he was interested in what I thought of him. Those were possibly the best and last pleasant moments.
But things turned sour when I started snooping into his business dealings, and when I started asking many questions about his friend, Limpopo premier Cassel Mathale. A barrage of insults, name-calling and threats followed.
“You are projecting yourself as a fearless revolutionary and you are not. You are just a small boy and you will never succeed in bringing Cassel down. You are a hopeless, bitter and generally negative journalist,” Malema once told me .
His henchmen, Floyd Shivambu and league treasurer Pule Mabe, joined the bullying chorus, questioning my integrity, calling me a “lousy journalist”, “poor”, “stupid” and a “small boy”.
To them, I had a political agenda. They even pretended to be psychoanalysts by concluding that I have developed a schizophrenic obsession for Malema. It was later coined Malemaphobia. They declared me a persona non grata, invoking the apartheid-type banning orders.
On October 4, 2009, I received an angry call from Malema who demanded to know why I wrote a story about Jacob Lebogo, his lieutenant, and other league members assaulting a rival ANC leader for campaigning against their endorsed candidates.
The sour relationship turned abusive. He was becoming angrier and scarier. He exploded one day when I asked him why he had verbally abused Limpopo traffic officers.
The climatic humiliation came at a press conference two years ago. He told my media colleagues I was a “stupid” journalist who accepted “brown envelopes (bribes)”. My crime? Exposing his multimillion rand tenders through his ownership of SGL Engineering Projects.
He played the man (the small boy rather) and not the ball at that press conference. “I see even Piet Rampedi is here. He has travelled all the way from Polokwane to Johannesburg for the first time in his life. I wonder how he is getting around here. We must make sure he does not get lost because he is not that clever this boy… you are a small boy.”
On several occasions he and his henchmen pleaded (and demanded) with my bosses to fire me.
But who got fired at the end? I am not gloating. It is not funny to kick the man (by the way, Zuma used the word snake for Mbeki) when he is down.
Actually, I feel sorry for him. I really am. Ironically, I feel the punishment is rather harsh, punitive and not corrective. He deserves a second chance. I believe he is a skilled political orator who knows how to exploit the public mood.
Despite a concerted effort by his detractors to portray him as an uneducated, unthinking buffoon – largely because they hated his political agenda – the populist leader is actually intelligent. Proof? Rewind his performance at his hate-speech trial last year and his media interviews.
He is one of the few politicians who can speak for more than an hour, without reading the prepared text and keep the audience’s attention span.
However, he lacked basic strategic skills. No diplomacy or tact. His terminal coprolalia – a type of psychological tic in which the sufferer involuntarily utters offensive, abusive and derogatory words – brought him down.
His ego, arrogance and power intoxication have resulted in an illusion of indispensability. He forgot that he is expendable. His illusion of grandeur is partly to do with how he came to power. His national leadership positions – from Cosas to the youth league – have always been marred by controversy, or even allegations of vote rigging.
He was re-elected unopposed last year but critics claim that he bullied and intimidated his opponents.
But he over-estimated his power. He mistook the future for the present.
Instead of preparing to rule in future, Malema wanted to govern the ANC and the country now – as if Zuma and other senior leaders were no more.
He openly tried to topple the country’s most powerful men – Mbeki (he kind of succeeded), Zuma and ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe.
You can’t blame him. Someone – including Zuma – told him that the ANC Youth League was a power broker and kingmaker. He was told that every ANC president ingratiated himself to the league. Of course, the league and its leaders – from the Mandela group, the Selebi exiles, the Mokaba lot to the Johnson, Gigaba and Mbalula crowd – have always been influential. They were a powerful lobby – and foot soldiers – for attainment of power. Not only did they possess power, but they knew how to manipulate and use it. Not any more, it seems. Malema dropped the baton of youth power.
He infuriated and insulted everyone – from poor journalists like me to Kgalema Motlanthe and Zuma – and pushed away potential strategic allies. I will not be surprised if he becomes one of the loneliest politicians around.
He should have been a little patient, waited and strategised.
He should have foreseen the consequences of his action, and pretended (at least) to be remorseful in order to retain his only platform that gave him power – the presidency of the ANC Youth League.
Like a supernova, he might go in a spectacular explosion, and disappear forever.
But like I said, I pity him. Funnily, I am going to miss his sharp and venomous tongue.
If I were to write his political epitaph, I would write: “Here lies a brilliant young man who sabotaged his own promising political career”.
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