Malema: Silencing the Man, Not the Idea

Victor Hugo once remarked; “You can resist an invading army but you cannot resist an idea whose time has come.”
For many South Africans, the economic democratization of the world’s most unequal and racially skewed economy is such an idea.
Suspending Julius Malema for five years from the ANC may succeed in silencing the spokesperson for such an idea.
But it will not deafen the growing calls for economic justice.
Moments before Ernesto “Che” Guevara was executed by CIA-backed Bolivian soldiers, he was asked if he was thinking about his own immortality.
“No,” he replied, “I’m thinking about the immortality of the revolution.”
Che Guevara also allegedly said to his executioner, “I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.’’
Guevara’s death warrant was signed at the behest of the CIA and by someone close to Che at the top of the Bolivian establishment.
Within a matter of months President Jacob Zuma has signed the political death certificate of two of Africa’s most progressive leaders: Muammar Gaddafi and Julius Malema.
In so doing, Mr Zuma has also almost certainly signed his own.
One of Mr Malema’s most egregious indiscretions was the fact that he said good things about another progressive Pan-Africanist.
A man who has done more to free South Africa from colonial bondage, one Robert Mugabe.
For that they gave Mr Malema two years.
Nowhere in the world is the issue of wealth disparity more potentially destructive than South Africa.
Not least because it is coloured by race and caused by well over a century of racial privilege.
Mr Malema was silenced for daring to challenge the wretched status quo.
For pushing the idea of expropriation of land without compensation, nationalization of mines and redistribution of wealth.
Under the 1913 Land Act, blacks were not allowed to own, or even rent, land outside special black reserves.
By 1994 some 87 percent of agricultural land was in white hands.
Precious little has changed during the intervening 17 years.
Except that for black people in rural areas 600 000 jobs have been lost since “independence”.
Pick up the financial report of any mining company, and one will understand why Mr Malema is advocating nationalization.
If you look at R100 income from a mine, R22 goes to the almost exclusively white or foreign owners and R17 goes to invariably white executives.
The rest is shared between suppliers (R18), capital goods providers (R16), labour (R14), government in the form of taxes (R9) and debt providers (R4).
So the notion that “the nation’s resource wealth is in the hands of a few white industrialists and foreigners” is not a populist fiction but a cold, hard and uncomfortable fact.
The list of entrenched interest groups opposed to changing the inequitable status quo in South Africa is as long as it is powerful: ranging from the monied class to political black elites, from a virtually unchanged apartheid era judiciary to white monopoly capital.
The first interest group was close enough to Mr Malema to finally thrust and twist the political dagger – the political black elites.
Many of whom were personally satiated by black economic empowerment and saw no reason to rock the boat.
Never mind, the increasing wealth inequality under their watch.
Malema’s often blunt and naked account of these truths was not merely an embarrassment it posed a political threat.
The second entrenched group is white capital.
Whites comprise only nine percent of the population but, thanks to the racist exploitation of blacks over the past 350 years, still have most of the country’s land, top jobs and a staggering 80 percent of the nation’s wealth.
Malema’s naked and often blunt account of this truth posed a grave economic threat.
Thirdly, Western capitals.
Every year wealthy Western shareholders repatriate hundreds of millions of dollars from South Africa to Western countries in the form of rent, dividends and profits.
Unsurprisingly they did not like the sound of ‘’Zimbabwe-style land seizers,’’ nationalization of mines and wealth redistribution.
To them Mr Malema was a fly in the ointment.
Last but certainly not least, there is the minority controlled media.
Initially they dismissed Mr Malema as an ignorant buffoon, whose populist ranting and colourful racist tirades usefully filled newspaper column inches on a dull day.
But as his support ballooned they then went after him.
Reductionist arguments that would render the work of the Bill Gates Foundation in Africa and Warren Buffet’s calls to tax the rich insincere were thrown at him: ‘’how can Malema claim to speak for the poor if he lives like a king?’’ was the common refrain.
The ultimate protector of these entrenched elites is the judiciary.
The composition of the courts has changed little since the end of apartheid.
Trumped up corruption charges against Mr Malema that had been put on ice until he was politically disrobed are now going to miraculously accelerate through the court system.
The media did their bit to discredit him. The politicians silenced him.
Now the judiciary wants to put him out of circulation.
These entrenched elites know that this young man has the power to change South African society forever, the same way Thaksin did in Thailand.
Helping the rural poor realize they have more power than the royalist dictators in Bangkok to chart their own lives.
In the end it mattered not that the majority of landless and dispossessed South Africans support Malema’s calls for democratizing the economy.
Unfortunately in politics, wealth and fear-mongering lend themselves to political influence far more easily than the aspirations of the masses or reason.
Entrenched interests may indeed have won the battle but they cannot silence the dispossessed forever to win the war.
The greatest weapons that popular revolutions face are not swords or bullets because they merely kill men.
The greatest challenge is unseating the entrenched elite that not only control the swords and bullets but also control the media, police, judiciary and legislature.
As a person, Mr Malema might become irrelevant, but his questions about economic freedom represent the concerns that many poor blacks are silently enduring this very moment.
Silencing the voice of the voiceless won’t make the cries for economic justice go quiet.
As a politician, Mr Malema might be a dead man walking, but his shadow will continue to haunt those that chose to silence him for shining a light on South Africa’s dark past, that if left unchallenged, is preventing a bright future for the majority.
Western capitals, the tiny group of neo-liberal blacks and many monied whites might be glad to see the back of Mr Malema.
But the lower classes will eventually have the final say.
Their cause is just. Victory is inevitable.
• Garikai Chengu is a research scholar at Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

December 2011
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