Monday, September 07, 2009

The return of unreason: the meaning of Malema

Lester Venter asks what the ANCYL president's buffoonery portends for SA

Stanley Uys wrote here last week that Julius Malema was a joke that ever-fewer people were laughing at. The ANC Youth League president (he's 28), was once seen as nothing but a buffoon. Now he was taking on an increasingly ominous aspect, said Uys (see article).

Doubtlessly, there is truth to Uys's assertion. When Malema's remarks first started to flow - sometimes they were illogical, sometimes they were outrageous, and often they were just plain stupid - people laughed. Even politics must have its clowns. It helps to make it a public entertainment.

Then the mood got muggier. The remarks became inflammatory and rather worrying - for example, his resurrection of the deep-frozen ANC policy of nationalising the mines.

At this stage the laughter starting drying up and people looked to Malema's ANC superiors for some sign that they were going to reign in their enfant terrible. The rebukes, once the ANC's grandees felt they had to say something, were muted and half-hearted. One had the uncomfortable feeling they were more in the nature of attempted explanations for Malema rather than admonitions. Moreover, their subject not only ignored them, he seemed to bask in the added attention.

Nothing was done. Malema stayed where he was, with no suggestion that his shoot-in-all-directions style was endangering his office within the ANC. Naturally, one understands that all political parties need their mavericks to act as lightning rods for their more radical supporters. It helps to keep them in the political kraal if someone in office is talking their talk. But in South Africa, where unrealisable expectations are the very essence of the threat to the government of the day, and where radical rhetoric scares off an already jumpy constituency on which much of the threadbare economy depends, toleration of an inflammatory provocateur seems more like outright foolishness.

That thought, though, never took hold, and the uncomfortable conclusion now is that Malema has slipped into the mainstream of South African politics.

The route he chiefly came by was racism -- raging against the racism that keeps black South Africans from reaching the levels of social empowerment they should. It is a curious mark of the South African political landscape that, after racism, in its most Frankenstein form, apartheid, was defeated so roundly by the ANC's triumphal accession to power, there should now be more of it about, if you go by what the politicians say.

Of course, this doesn't quite make sense; and those, like Malema, who beat the drum of racism, are careful never to get specific about from where or from whom the racism emanates. It's just there.

No-one would be so foolish as to claim that there is, in a society like South Africa's, no racism. Naturally, there is, and a sober vigilance needs to be maintained against its ever-potential rise. But the extraordinarily high ranking it enjoys on the public agenda - politicians resort to it more easily, and people are more readily moved by claims of racism than, say, issues of social development - is a pointer to another worrying factor suggested by the rise of Malema.

A strain of irrationality has re-entered the political mainstream, along with Malema.

The rise of the irrational in politics and history is not an unfamiliar event. A close and recent example is the loony imaginings of Robert Mugabe. His bluster about how Britain was plotting to invade Zimbabwe left everyone but the man and his followers nonplussed. Another close-at-hand example is the dark whisperings of Mbeki that the promotion of anti-retrovirals to treat AIDS in Africa was a conspiracy by the CIA/the West/whites.

Sadly, there is a disquieting track record of zaniness in African politics. The trajectory from relative sobriety to irrationality is one that has been seen in many places. From Mandela to Malema. It's happened before.

And it is right here, at this juncture, that Uys raised a question that at first sight seems just as loony. But is it? Uys asked: could the Malema factor one day win (which it may do, after provoking a split in the governing alliance, Uys ventured)?

The Zimbabwe example already suggests an answer, a very uncomfortable one. To it, one could add a long list of further examples where entire nations have slipped their moorings on reason and rationality in Africa's recent history - Uganda, Rwanda, Central African Republic, Liberia, Sierra Leone ...

The spectre of irrationality entering a nation's politics takes on an even more ominous aspect when one widens the perspective to take in the fact that it is a phenomenon that is not exclusive to Africa. If one understands irrationality to mean that moment when deep-seated emotions and drivers of the psyche start to take a hand in human affairs, then the phenomenon can be seen at work in many places.

It characterised the relations between Germany and France in the late 19th Century and the early part of the 20th. Isaiah Berlin, in his search for an answer to the question of why Nazism happened where and when it did, pulls this particular psycho-dynamic in to serve as his answer (still one of the best around).

A new and revealing book on how irrationality shapes global politics today, The Geopolitics of Emotion, by the French scholar Dominique Moisi, follows a similar thought-route. Both Berlin and Moisi describe how, when one group feels itself negatively judged by the silent disapproval of another group ... particularly when the first group senses its achievements rank inadequately against those of the second, then a suppressed sense of humiliation starts to fester.

Before long the toxic emotional brew turns to anger and hatred. It starts to boil over, bubbling out first as wild claims of prejudice and injustice (e.g. racism) and ultimately as violence. This is the generally-acknowledged psychodynamic profile of the clash between the Arab world and the West. It's hard not to see something along similar lines between Africa and the West; and in South Africa, where the Western mind and the African mind have still not found a common space to inhabit.

Since Uys's questions tap into these deep trends and issues, it is worth taking them seriously. In fact, they may be the most important questions South Africa faces, bar none.

Slumbering under this topic is the unexamined (at least not in public discourse) article of faith that South Africa would never follow other African states down the banana republic route. Now, thanks to Malema and all that his presence means in the mainstream of the nation's politics, it might be time for South Africans to tackle this blind faith. The seeds of unreason have been planted, and the country must now ask: Why won't it happen here? What will stop it?

If we do this, Uys may have done us a big favour. Not to mention Malema.

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