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VERASHNI PILLAY: Channeling South Africans’ desperate need for accountability

OPINION

Something curious caught South African Twitter’s attention recently. It trended for days - no mean feat - and curiously, was not driven by any particularly big “influencer”. As is the case with these things, it was summed up with a hashtag: #MalemaMustFall.

It was referring, of course, to the leader of the radical Economic Freedom Fighters. But those behind the call were not who you’d expect.

It was not Julius Malema’s usual critics and enemies - the ones from the right of the political spectrum and the paler end of the fractured rainbow nation. Neither was it about any of the serious corruption allegations levelled against him throughout his political career. Instead, the trend was propelled exclusively by Malema’s own self-proclaimed supporters - those his party consider their base.

They were the young, black South Africans who have been marginalised by an unequal economy. They were the ones who hustle harder than you and I could know, and are desperate for any opportunity, any helping hand up that steep cliff of upward mobility.

And why were they so angry with Malema? Because he happened to support a DJ friend, who had arrogantly brushed off a hopeful up-and-comer asking the DJ for a break.

EFF leader Julius Malema then posted his support for Shimza on Twitter after the backlash by other users: "Never be shaken by rubbish young man @Shimza01. You worked very hard to be where you are and can’t be destroyed by those who suffer from self-hate."

So relentless was the criticism against Malema after that, that he lashed out: "You can go to hell."

It was the sort of publicity legions of investigative journalists, who have had Malema in their crosshairs for years, would have dreamed of.

But it wasn’t the detailed exposes by amaBhungane, Scorpio and the like that caught these voters’ attention. It was something far more deep-rooted. A sense of justice, fairness and common courtesy. A deeply held value that is far more powerful than reams of facts, numbers and technicalities of what a politician and their party may or may not have done wrong.

It’s tempting to look at this incident and dismiss it as a case of a particular demographic with all the wrong priorities: more concerned with stardom than accountability.

But the fact is, we’ve been talking at this particular group of people for too long, without taking the time to understand what matters to them… and why. If we did, we’d find out that accountability is very important.

But there are just so few avenues to channel this energy. Our system has shut out all but its most moneyed voices. The average voter has woefully few channels of engagement with their government authorities outside the elections that roll around every few years. But elections, even free and fair ones like ours, do not an active citizenry make.

So what happens to that energy for the young and disempowered citizen, so much more passionate, and feeling their exclusion so deeply? It is channelled into avenues where they do have access. At its worst it is public acts of violence and outrage - schools and libraries burned down. At its most relatively harmless it is social media. And in this space, where they finally feel heard, they don’t turn their attention to the topics dominated by elites, where they are expected to be quiet and only listen.

They create conversations where they have agency. They create narratives where they are the protagonists and no longer relegated to playing bit parts on the sidelines of their country’s making.

What on earth am I talking about, you ask? Quite simply, when the primal sense of right and wrong is refused and must find expression, “cancel culture” is born: the rage that routinely erupts across social media platforms with young people inexplicably demanding that someone or something new “must fall”. It happened to be Malema’s turn a few weeks ago.

It doesn’t have to be this way of course. We could create ways for these large swathes of our society to be heard. To have agency. To shift the conversation towards their reality, and their solutions.

Verashni Pillay is a freelance journalist, and is currently working with governance NGO Accountability Lab.