Malema’s nation

CHRISTI VAN DER WESTHUIZEN explores revolution, race, gender, sex and sexuality, and the discourse of expulsion.

A public discourse of antagonism towards certain differences in identities continued unabated during 2010 in South Africa, with its primary peddler remaining ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.

Given the power of discourses to construct persons as subjects in their service, it is essential to consider what this public rhetoric of stigmatisation could mean for the delicate project of democratic inclusiveness.

Unshackled from the dour managerial politics of the Mbeki era, the public discourse has since become replete with colourful but dangerous populist diatribes.

The moment marking a sharp rise in populist rhetoric was the change in leadership at the ANC’s national conference in Polokwane in 2007. Its origins can be traced back to 2005, when a beleaguered Jacob Zuma first sang ‘Awuleth’ umshini wami’ at Schabir Shaik’s corruption trial as a war cry against his detractors.

By the time of Zuma’s rape trial in 2006, ‘Awuleth’ umshini wami’ had become his signature song. The featuring of the song at the trial brought together three elements that have been typically present in the most notorious instances of populism in the past few years.

Firstly, ‘Awuleth’ umshini wami’ means ‘bring my machine gun’ and was a song that ANC comrades sang during the struggle against apartheid. In the 2000s, its conjuring of violence in peaceful times is indicative of a populism that does not hesitate to capitalise on the past, whether by recreations of real or imagined struggle heroics being carried forward in a ‘national democratic revolution’, or by resuscitating the divisive identity politics of apartheid.

Secondly, the singing of the song at the rape trial hinted at a masculinity steeped in violence and sustained by misogyny.

Thirdly, it is reflective of a populism that seeks to establish the speaker’s status as a soldier and by implication ‘an ordinary man’ (apart from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, South Africa’s most prominent populists are male).

The discourses containing these elements operate at the intersections of identities, most noticeably gender, sex, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class and age. The three elements come together in the following incidents.

Zuma set the stage and Malema stepped into the role, first courting controversy with his statement in June 2008 that he would ‘kill for Zuma’. Referring to Zuma’s rape trial in January of 2009, Malema told students at a rally in Cape Town: ‘When a woman didn’t enjoy it, she leaves early in the morning. Those who had a nice time will wait until the sun comes out, request breakfast and ask for taxi money.’

Sonke Gender Justice Network brought a charge of hate speech against Malema for abrogating to himself the right to decide what constitutes rape, objectifying women and inciting violence against women. Malema’s main defence was based on his projected class position as an ‘ordinary man’, as he referred to his status as a layperson who lacks tertiary education and could therefore have misunderstood the verdict in the Zuma case.

The Equality Court magistrate concurred with Sonke, however, and in March 2010 ordered Malema to pay R50 000 to an organisation combating violence against women and to issue a public apology. Malema’s noncompliance led to his assets being attached in October 2010.

Malema’s response to Sonke’s complaint was to question whether the organisation’s leadership was ‘truly black’. He told a crowd at the court: ‘The black faces you see in front are not really black. They represent whites who are opposed to black rule.’ He also said that a ‘real African’ organisation would have resolved its issues without going to court.

Sonke’s Mbuyiselo Botha took Malema on for playing the ‘race card’ and referred to his own struggle credentials, which include sustaining a disability after an apartheid police attack.

Starting during the build-up to the 2009 election, Malema has also engaged in a running battle of words with the leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), Helen Zille, calling her a ‘racist, colonialist and imperialist’. He dismissed then-DA chairperson Joe Seremane as a ‘garden boy’ whose ‘role it is to smile at’ Zille. Zille hit back in isiXhosa, calling Malema an inkwenkwe (uncircumcised boy) for insulting an elder. Malema retorted that ‘culture’ demanded that women not  speak about such matters.

As parties geared up for the local government election in 2011, Malema launched another volley in October of this year, in which he called Zille a ‘cockroach’ – a phrase that has in recent times been most commonly associated with the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Malema also provoked attention when he chased a British journalist from a press conference in April 2010 after the latter pointed out that the Youth League president lived in the wealthy Johannesburg suburb of Sandton. Again, ‘revolution’, race, gender, sex and sexuality featured in a rant designed to deflect attention from Malema’s class status: ‘This is a revolutionary house and you don’t come here with your white tendency … If you’ve got a tendency of undermining blacks even where you work you are in the wrong place.’ The journalist replied, saying that was ‘rubbish’. Malema’s retort was: ‘Rubbish is what you have covered in that trouser [sic], that is rubbish … You are a small boy, you can’t do anything. Bastard, go out, you bloody agent.’

Malema is the main but not sole purveyor of this discourse of expulsion. In March 2010 cabinet minister Lulu  Xingwana was reported to have declared an exhibition showing black lesbians in intimate embraces to be ‘against nation-building’. Black lesbians are among the excluded ‘others’, as they do not conform to a model of acquiescent (black) womanhood. Elaborating on Xingwana’s version of ‘nation-building’, what is the picture that emerges of Malema’s nation? It is one in which race continues to be used for political ends but this time round in the service of an idealised blackness based on compliance with ANC leadership positions. It is also a heteronormative nation in which women are denied sexual autonomy and the right to speech. Similarly, men who do not conform are ‘lesser men’ (small boys; ‘garden boys’) while ‘real men’ are revolutionaries ready to kill for their leaders. It is a nation haunted by an unprocessed past, with ‘agents’ and ‘colonialists’ seeking to stop the ‘revolution’. It is a nation in which the capital accumulation of the ruling class may not be questioned. This nation is neither democratic nor inclusive.

Christi van der Westhuizen is author of White Power and the Rise and Fall of the National Party.

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