Saturday, 13 February 2010

Julius Malema the Populist

Why Malema must be written off
My argument here is that Julius Malema of the ANC Youth League is advancing populism in a way which is not any different from a right-wing politician like Pia Kjaersgaard in Denmark. Their policies may be different (nationalization of the mines or restrictive immigration of foreigners respectively) but the policy is here not the main thing. The main thing is to find an issue with the populace that they (often in their ignorance) fear or much would like to have.
Everybody with any sense of being in the midst of current news writes about Julius Malema. What surprises me is that so many people are taking him seriously without unveiling (exposing) the total lack of foundation of what he ventures to say week after week. Julius Malema is the President of ANCYL, the ANC Youth League, a position that commands respect. After all, some of the great leaders were groomed in that movement, people like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sizulu, etc.
Malema is not yet 30 years old. He is well dressed, he drives a fancy car and he is well paid. He knows how to speak to a crowd and he would through his special kind of rhetoric know how to have them in his hand completely.
Why should Malema be written off? Why is he dangerous? What baffles me is that most people, friends as well as foes, seem to take him seriously, as if he had a message, an ideal, a truth for which he was striving, and for which he would be prepared to die.
Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case at all. The latest discussion on nationalization of the South African mines is a case in point. The SACP General Secretary Jeremy Gordin had the courage to denounce Malema’s proposal that nationalization was the only way forward. Gordin, as a communist, if anyone, should understand that kind of thinking; but not even he is prepared to buy into that kind of idealist thinking. What Gordin however seems to fail to do, is to unveil (expose) what is really behind Malema’s various proposals.
A couple of years ago I read a biography of the Danish politician Pia Kjaersgaard, still the leader of the Danish People’s Party today. You must hold your breath, but her way forward in Danish politics is amazing and very scary. She started off as an assistant nurse but found that job rather boring. She eventually got the taste for politics. Extremely stubborn and strong-willed she has since had her way.
The secret behind her success in Danish political life is her way of making populism a real skill and an art. She discovered soon through various political meetings, not least with people in the rural backwaters, that they had one big concern: immigrants and refugees. People had started to feel that these should not be let in any longer and that they who were already should comply with Danish language and culture. The fear of the stranger (many times personified by a Muslim) became a pillar on which she could build her Danish People’s Party. Another pillar came to be social security and public health. Initially she fought for a society with as low taxes as possible. The policies were right wing in general. Then during her intensive engagement with local people, especially at the backwaters, she discovered that that was not what the people wanted. They wanted some security from the state in terms of social welfare and health. Fine, why not turn around 180 degrees and make sure people get what they want?
This was fine for such a turn around to a social welfare policy also coincided with Social Democrat policies, a party that still has the largest vote in the country. This was simply ingenious because in elections it showed that previously staunch Social Democrats now were prepared to vote for Pia Kjaersgaard.
There is more to her politics than this, but here are at least two important pillars in the party on which a country could be governed. Many people just fear for all the strangers, especially those with dark looks that are trying to come in through the Danish borders, so they would vote Danish People’s Party. A majority of people still want a country with social welfare and health services run by the state, so many now vote for Danish People’s Party.
In fact this party has been in a government coalition for about the last ten years. In a way xenophobic sentiments have been cemented in government policies. Strangers are many times simply not welcome any longer, neither legally nor culturally and this does not only go for Denmark. The same tendencies will be found in Sweden and other EU countries.
So what about Julius Malema? In my opinion, he is very much the same kind of political animal as Pia Kjaersgaard. It is about populism and how to make it a fine art. Malema would strategize, he would ask himself and his movement, how are we going to get the masses’ support in a continuous way? Well, why not nationalization? Of the mines? There is an enormous wealth there that the common people do not profit from. Let’s nationalize them and share the wealth among the people.
Through a long experience with socialist countries we know what will happen. In the end the people will not benefit from such wealth, but the leadership, the click sitting at the top, what might again become a nomenclatura. We know this, even Jeremy Gordin knows this, himself being a communist and he also knows that business will go down if you nationalize just like that. The probable way forward is to use the mixed economy principle, with business and with some state engagement or even interference.
This discussion may not be interesting for Malema. As a populist he is not interested in facts, but in how far he can get support from people. To be enlightened, to be well informed, and to be studied would be of no help here. The less you know the better it is. The ugly part of Malema’s and ANCYL’s way of doing things is that it is done with the assumption that people don’t know and that they better never get to understand. It is a power built on ignorance. The less people know the better. The less people know the easier it is to manipulate them and get their votes.
This is exactly what Pia Kjaersgaard has argued for, sometimes openly, sometimes not so openly. After all she is sitting in government with other people. What is taking place has to be, at least at times, reasonably ‘salongsfähigt’.
If Julis Malema changes his mind and shows that he has an ideal worth mentioning and that he is prepared to die for, I will also change my mind about him, but I fear it is too late. At worst he may pull the whole movement down in the same direction.
He is developing the art of populism along the same lines as Pia Kjaersgaard. She has been successful in an old democracy, Denmark, for more than ten years. Malema might also become successful in doing this. For the sake of democracy and for the sake of South Africa, he must be written off, now.

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