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The Julius Malema dilemma

Gushwell Brooks.

Gushwell Brooks says Malema wouldn't be powerful if SA’s leaders were doing their jobs.

Julius Malema is becoming a greater and greater threat to the stability of both the ANC and the state. But he wouldn’t have that kind of power if the country’s leaders were doing their job in the first place.

On 12 September 2012, Julius Malema took centre stage in our national discourse yet again. Two weeks before that, he managed to get an entire contingent of cabinet ministers to be whisked away swiftly for their safety, despite their existing blue-light brigades and dark-suited, highly trained security staff. Even health minister Aaron Motsoaledi’s heroics for the day, which saw him ditching his jacket and rolling up his sleeves to attend to the fainting mothers and wives of the miners that fell at the trigger fingers of our police service, could not transcend the rage Malema conjured on that day.

This would not have been a surprise to me eight months ago; he was, after all, the charismatic, fire-and-brimstone leader of that political conveyor belt, the ANC Youth League. But now, in essence, he’s not that different from me: a non-descript, average, taxpaying – or so we hope – Joe Soap.

Yet lo and behold, he has not gone down without a fight. Despite being relieved of his leadership duties, he is again surrounded by a large entourage; black, Che-style beret slanted over his bald crown; megaphone in in hand. “Economic freedom! Strike until your demands are met! No leadership from Zuma!” He belts slogans out as if he is the new opposition leader (derailing Helen Zille’s plan to spread the DA’s net beyond the confines of the Western Cape).

But he is no trade union, party or business leader. So how come he gets to speak on behalf of everyone somehow wronged by government?

Don’t get me wrong: he has the same freedom as everyone else, guaranteed by the Constitution. Certainly he is one of South Africa’s most recognisable faces. Furthermore, we should all be exercising our constitutional right to speak out against the social injustices in the country. But what is puzzling is the following Malema still gathers, despite the fact that he has no mandate and, to all intents and purposes, can do nothing for anyone.

This man, campaigning harder than US Republican Mitt Romney, with no clear goals for anyone but himself, has yet again catapulted himself to the forefront of being the vanguard of the poor – those who, unlike him, will unfortunately never get to sip expensive cognacs or tear down one expensive mansion to be replaced with another. Yet they follow him. Why? How does he manage to get the entire nation to hang on his every word, as he promises miners that their salary demands will be met, and bellows further sweet nothings to the country’s disgruntled soldiers?

In short, it’s because nature abhors a vacuum. There’s an absence of genuine leadership in the country, so in fairness, anyone can step up. And Malema has never had the shrinking violet gene. Thabo Mbeki, despite his unceremonious departure from formal politics, had the decency to apply his skills to mediation and his dream for Pan-Africanism. He adds to the discourse, but Malema is a different kettle of fish. He’s simply raising everyone’s temperature – presumably with his own opportunistic agenda in mind.

Unfortunately, in the meantime, the people who should and are able to do something are not doing anything. Despite what our president would have you believe, as per a recent address to the South African Local Government Association, the people of Marikana have not been enjoying the “best service delivery in the world”. A large, profitable company is comfortable paying salaries to workers who leave them barely able to feed their families, with many having to live in shacks without the decency of adequate housing. The well-documented, decrepit circumstances these people live under never moved mine bosses to ask themselves whether remuneration was in fact sufficient, and where their social responsibility spend was going if circumstances remained so dire.

In the absence of caring from them, Malema did what they never managed to. He paid attention to the people our corporates, unions and politicians ignored.

What he has taken advantage of is the fact that the longer people are ignored, the angrier they get, and the angrier they get, the further they begin to drift from what is reasonable. Central to the Marikana massacre and the Lonmin strike is an established, well-connected trade union movement with political clout, which lost a large portion of its constituency because it failed to meet the needs of those it claimed to recognise. Its presence did not change the fact that people were doing dangerous work deep in the earth’s bowels, drilling into rocks to extract arguably the most precious metal, but living like their unemployed counterparts.

Surely it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that these people, failed by their union shop stewards, have sought resolution elsewhere.

The same applies to the rest of this nation. Communities like Marikana exist throughout the nine provinces and yes, trade union, political and commercial leadership have a presence throughout these communities. The standard response by leaders is, however, usually something along the lines of, “If we ignore them for long enough, they might just disappear or we might stop noticing them and their squalor.” But this approach unfortunately fails when the population rightly expects its leaders to serve its best interests, as per the Constitution.

With profits and Mangaung being the largest consideration for many of our so-called corporate and political leaders, very little has been done to improve the lives of these miners and the communities they live in. Again, this sorry state prevails throughout the country. So the space has been created for opportunists, space from which they emerge to claim the limelight and take centre stage. It is not only Malema, but many others. He, unlike them, comes with the fame and the resultant media storm, but there are also other detractors who go unnoticed until violent protests make headlines.

There is nothing wrong with abandoning the failing establishment and seeking innovative and effective means of resolving disputes, addressing concerns and demanding what is due to you legally. What is of concern is the fact that the leaders of many of these alternative structures have vested political interests of their own. They often do not put the concerns raised by the people at the top of their priorities.

Instead they take these concerns, turn them into slogans that are catchy, say what the people wish to hear and claim it to be the will of the people. In the end, Malema and those like him are not showing a stitch of leadership. They do not try to channel the people’s torrent of anger away from violence toward effective resolution, or convince them that they cannot have employers relent to their demands and only then wish to debate and negotiate. They do not lead people to a realisation that in a negotiation, you have to reach a compromise. These supposed emerging leaders know what to say, but in practice, they have no idea what to do with the discontented masses when they turn violent.

They fail to recognise that if the miners lose this wage dispute, addressed through unlawful industrial action, they will lose their jobs. Despite what many analysts, journalists and politicians think, the largest tragedy will not be the violent backlash that will result, but also the thousands of families that will lose their livelihoods and sink deeper into poverty for years, if not generations.

As tragic as it is, we bury our dead and leave them to the afterlife. But their surviving comrades, those dismissed for striking without legal protection, have to explain to their wives and kids why the breadbin is empty.

Of course it is not quite as simplistic as this; it is in fact a far more dangerous scenario than we would like to accept. We are at a tipping point. More people are resorting to drastic and dangerous means to make their voices heard; means that fall outside of what is needed to maintain a politically and economically sound society, leaving us in a position where we constantly have to rebuild what we destroy.

It has only been three years since a bunch of angry soldiers had a royal rumble with our police in front of the Union Buildings in our capital. We whispered our relief that we avoided a military coup d’état. So I get why our very new minister of defence is upset at the prospect of Malema speaking to group of discontented military men. They are well-armed, trained to kill; a watchdog with really large teeth and jaws that will eat you for breakfast if it turns on you. 

But cracking down isn’t going to solve anything. The change has to be systemic. This new alternative “leadership” is dangerous, because it recognises the leadership void politicians, unions and business have created, and that bread-and-butter issues are not being dealt with as our leaders pirouette around each other in an effort not to step on each other’s powerful toes. As our politicians hold press conferences where they shake hands and display smiles that belie the daggers that they conceal from each other, Rome is ablaze. So injured upstarts with scores to settle will emerge and exploit what people feel toward their elected leaders, bolstering their own support in the process. If they have their way, we will not just have ungovernable mines but an ungovernable land.

The government is literally handing these renegades an arsenal with which to seduce the people. Of course the blame will be shunted on the shoulders of business and political leadership. Their greatest culpability lies in what they have failed to do – avoiding this mess in the first place by, quite frankly, leading.

This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.

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