Business Day: Malema antidote is a greater voice for the poor

Malema antidote is a greater voice for the poor

Steven Friedman

JULIUS Malema’s fate may still be uncertain. What is certain is that, whatever awaits him, most citizens will have no say in it. This is a problem that should worry us all.

It was inevitable that the disciplinary charges against Malema and African National Congress (ANC) Youth League spokesman Floyd Shivambu would prompt claims that the league would mobilise “mass action” against the ANC leadership. And it was equally predictable that this would revive one of the great myths of the Malema saga — that he speaks for masses of angry poor people who may rise up in his defence.

Voices across the spectrum have portrayed Malema as the voice of the grassroots poor, who are said to find his slogans appealing because they seem to offer a way out of poverty. However self-serving his message might be, it is argued, the poor are taken in because their circumstances are desperate and they cannot see through the slogans that seem to offer them much. If this is true, what would be needed is firm leadership that can keep these dangerous democratic pressures at bay — at least until some day when the poor may be less desperate or better informed.

But in reality, Malema and his style of politics are a symptom not of too much democracy but of too little. And the antidote to this demagogue is more democracy, offering more voice to the grassroots poor.

Constant claims that youth league leaders enjoy mass support lack evidence. At best, those who make them confuse a vocal group of insider activists who frequent ANC meetings and social media with the mass of the country’s youth. The activists are an elite — often motivated by a desire to share in the spoils of office — whose connection with the grassroots poor is tenuous at best. The same mistake was made at Polokwane in 2007.

Commentaries insisted that the delegates were the poverty-stricken masses rising up against the ANC elite. But the evidence since then — such as the continuation of grassroots protest — confirms that they were one section of the elite rising up against another. They were certainly poorer than those whose authority they challenged. But, unlike the grassroots poor, they have a voice and that immediately separates them from most poor people. The poor did not rally behind the leadership the ANC elected because they had no hand in electing them.

Nothing much has changed since then. What the much-feared masses think of Malema-style politics, we do not know. But what evidence we have suggests, as this column has argued before, that they are unimpressed. When Shivambu tried to persuade viewers of a TV programme, which probably has the country’s largest mass viewership, that lifestyle audits of politicians should be treated with suspicion, every viewer who participated in a poll on the topic disagreed with him. When the public protector’s office had to defend to a similar TV audience its findings partly exonerating Malema from tender irregularities in Limpopo, 90% of viewers rejected its view.

None of this should be surprising. Research shows that the grassroots poor are well informed and aware of what is in their interests. Poor people know how the demagogues live — some may even have heard Malema say, on radio, that he bought a large house because this is what every young South African does with their first pay cheque, so betraying a deep insensitivity to the lives and restricted choices of most young people. And they can work out that the youth league’s politics is an insider game, an effort by one elite to claim the spoils at the expense of others, which has nothing to offer the poor.

Unlike elites trying to wrest resources from other elites, poor people cannot afford the luxury of empty slogans, which offer them nothing — they are forced into a more considered view because their economic survival is at stake. This, too, is supported by research, which finds that the grassroots poor are perfectly capable of informed and rational approaches to policy questions.

Far from being an expression of what happens when the grassroots gain a voice, Malema and the politics he represents are a warning of what happens when most people are denied a say. The more the voices of the poor are heard in our politics, the less leeway there will be for demagogues because politicians would have to justify what they do and how effective they are at doing it. But a host of barriers prevent most of the poor from having a role in the debate, leaving the field open to elites, who can pass themselves off as the voice of the masses when they speak only for the well-heeled and well-connected.

It follows that those who see Malema’s style of demagoguery as a threat need to be doing whatever they can to encourage a deeper democracy in which far more citizens will have a greater say. Until it is achieved, progress will continue to be obstructed by thinly disguised elite politics, whether Malema survives politically or not.