Today, I raise a clenched fist to the stormy petrel of South African politics, Julius Sello Malema.
I have had cause in the past to caution the rambunctious young man about some of his potentially incendiary outbursts, but he just made me do a rethink with the maturity and candour that attended his reaction to the recent xenophobic rage of his countrymen against African immigrants.
While President Ramaphosa and the top guns of the ruling ANC were mealy mouthing and double-speaking in order not to offend their political base, Malema rose to the occasion and called xenophobia by its name. That is the true imperative of leadership: telling the truth to your followers even if it would alienate some of them.
At a time when the South African foreign Minister was claiming that the killing and looting spree was to demonstrate opposition to drug peddling by Nigerians and other African migrants, Malema exposed the soft underbelly of the cheap lie. If the attacks were predicated on the criminal activities of foreigners, he said, why were Asian and white drug barons not targeted, or was the government claiming that it was only blacks that sold drugs?
Malema’s most significant point in my view was his historical analysis. He reminded his followers that other African countries had made great sacrifices for South African blacks in the past with many of ANC leaders living in exile in Mozambique, Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe and elsewhere. What kind of forgetfulness would have made South Africans to forget so soon? Malema predicted that those being ill-treated today may yet be the benefactors of South African blacks again in the near future.
As the African proverb states, be courteous and show gratitude when you take shelter from the rain in a neighbour’s house because you may need that facility again on another day. Or, as another proverb attributed to Robert Mugabe states, treat all parts of your towel with respect; the part that wipes your buttocks today may wipe your face tomorrow.
Because of Malema’s bold railing against the pseudo-nationalist vandals, ANC leaders suddenly found their mojo and began to walk back their narrative of criminal gangs of foreigners. It was only after Malema had seized the moral high ground and confronted the monster of xenophobia that President Ramaphosa thought it fit to send envoys to several African countries affected by the primitive savagery of the South African mob.
On social media, Malema took on his followers headlong. Some had felt that he was jeopardising his political future by siding with foreigners against his own people, but he replied that all Africans were his people and that he didn’t want to be remembered as the leader of a band of thugs and cowardly murderers hiding behind mob action to wipe out fellow Africans. He said he would also be against killing of Asians and whites without recourse to the law, how much more when black brothers and sisters were at the receiving end.
The EFF firebrand begged for forgiveness on behalf of South Africans: “Find it in your hearts to forgive us. We are sorry. We are ashamed. Forgive us. We come from a traumatic past and we are still struggling to find ourselves. The oppressors, who control our minds, are the ones who have instilled in us the hatred of our brothers and sisters. They have told us we are better than the rest of the continent.”
Malema the statesman has arrived. He represents the new face of hope for South Africa. While the ANC bigwigs give the impression of power fatigue and diplomatic stasis, Malema, young as he is, is showing that the challenges confronting his country can be met with courage and clear thinking. It is not where a leader stands in times of peace that counts but where he stands in times of strife when the people are rudderless.
Cynics, of course, have dismissed Malema’s stance as showboating. They accused him of attempting to grab global endorsement through the back door. But I insist that the crisis brought out the leadership qualities of the young man who was but a 13-year-old when apartheid was consigned to the rubbish bin of history in 1994. It is ironic that a young man who had not been born in the turbulent days of the liberation struggle has risen to become the face of hope in South Africa while his elders were stagnated in the marshes of collective amnesia. There is hope that the Malema generation will give a good account of itself if entrusted with power in the unborn years ahead.
Don’t write off South Africa yet — as long as you have people like Julius Sello Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in circulation.
Naysayers in Nigeria, too, have tried to downplay the intervention of Air Peace and its owner, Allen Onyema. What’s the big deal? They ask. Isn’t money spent on corporate social responsibility (CSR) tax deductible? Why roll out the drums of adulation for a man who was only taking advantage of a crisis to market his brand?
I have nothing but contempt for such questions. Those who argue that way pretend that the businessman hadn’t done anything noble. They expose their own lack of nobility. Why shouldn’t Air Peace benefit from media adulation when it is assisting compatriots in distress while other billionaires looked the other way? The fact that a philanthropist can afford to be generous does not cancel out the nobility of his gesture.