Originally published in The Daily Maverick.
Julius Malema likes to present himself as “working class”. He still identifies himself as a product of that class, despite the fact that the cost of his watch alone would equal the average annual income of roughly 20 working-class black South Africans.
How then are we to make sense of his self-proclaimed solidarity with people who struggle to feed themselves? South Africa remains a country of great inequalities and class distinctions linger. Are three houses and five cars required to escape the label of “working class”, instead of Malema’s two houses and three cars (according to reports)?
All that Malema seems to have in common with what StatsSA’s categorisation of the working class in South Africa’s is that he is black and has a poor education. While he seems to have the financial means to resolve the latter, the former is neither a problem, nor something he can change. Given that it cannot change, any argument that Malema is working class devolves into the claim that blackness equals working class, which means that Ramaphosa, Sexwale and many others are, by Malema’s definition, working class.
And, of course, they are not.
Nor would they attempt to make the absurd claim that they are. What Malema presumably means is that he identifies with the working classes – that he emerged from such circumstances, and that he knows, and feels for the struggles experienced by the poor and otherwise “disenfranchised”.
This identification, if backed up by consistent action in defence of working-class interests, would usually be a laudable thing. South Africa has a history, well known to all, of the powerful classes (historically, and to a large extent currently, populated by whites) abusing the interests of the less powerful. White capital and political power were the tools “The Man” used to keep the rabble in check, and to make sure that The Man’s interests were served at the expense of the majority of the South African population.
The Man was often oppressive, brutal and unconcerned with equality. He was arrogant and complacent. He had certitude about his policies and principles and little sympathy for arguments that pointed out the short-sightedness of his policy for the long-term sustainability of the welfare of the country in which he lived. Most of all, he did not tolerate dissent and created educational and media structures that reinforced and consolidated his position of power. The silencing of critics was, of course, essential when your arguments were unsustainable.
In other words, the oppression and abuse of South Africans who were non-white (the term is efficient here, in that privilege accrued mostly according to race) was made possible by the obvious weapon of capital, but also by the more subtle tools of ideology, propaganda and censorship.
Malema seems to have capital and the power that accompanies it. Despite what he claims his income to be, his possessions and lifestyle offer us irrefutable evidence of access to goods that far outstrip those afforded by a salary of R20,000. Whether or not he has acquired that capital legitimately is a matter for SARS to resolve, but assuming he has acquired it legitimately, I cannot argue with his right to exercise the power it affords him in a manner of his choosing. He can buy flashy and tasteless jewellery, palatial mansions with monogrammed gates and fancy imported cars to his heart’s content.
“Can” and “should”, though, are entirely separate matters. Malema’s conspicuous consumption is understandable, as Theodore Veblen pointed out in The Theory of the Leisure Class, as a manifestation of his newly-acquired social power. And for all the opportunities this power allows him, such as drinking R800 bottles of Moet et Chandon champagne while berating “left-wing leaders who drink red wine”, the inconsistencies between claiming to be working class while living like upper class or even royalty should result in some deep soul-searching by the man personally. And should also result in a significant loss of faith in Malema on the part of those he claims to represent.
But this is not proving to be the case. At least not yet, and surely not as quickly as one might expect. While there have been some media criticisms of his lifestyle, as well as of his public pronouncements, his popularity seems undiminished.
It appears, therefore, that Malema’s wealth presents little obstacle to his being able to sell the idea that he is working class, or to his continued enjoyment of the support of many who can only dream of running water, rather than driving though monogrammed gates.
Which brings me to the other tools of oppression – ideology, propaganda and censorship. Malema’s wealth is not a problem, because he keeps telling us it isn’t. And he tells us this in rhetorically powerful ways, reminding us of old (and current) scars relating to racial oppression and violence.
He tells us this while associating any critic with something negative, or perceived to be abhorrent, such as being a Satanist for Helen Zille, not being “a real woman” for Patricia de Lille, and being an aristocratic snob who drinks red wine for Blade Nzimande. He and the ANC Youth League reinforce these attempts at deflection by treating the press with contempt and attempting to smear and discredit journalists via investigations into their finances, while simultaneously providing incoherent information about Malema’s finances.
These sorts of statements and actions discourage dissent in that critics are aware that any statements critical of Malema and the ANCYL will be met with a forceful response, and one that taps into an existing – and even justified – frustration with the continued suffering of the working class by way of service delivery, poverty, education and a host of other factors of which any South African is well aware. They also depend on defined logical fallacies, such as guilt by association and poisoning the well.
But they also indicate contempt and a cynical attitude which permits the exploitation of those frustrations, and which permits callousness towards other forms of suffering. Suffering such as that of the victims of farm attacks, where a memorandum about the victims of such attacks can be trampled on by ANCYL officials, or the suffering of victims of rape, where insult can be heaped upon abuse, and pain trivialised through what the courts recently agreed was hate speech.
Oppression and abuse of the interests of the working class is no doubt a bad thing. It happens through abuses of the power that accrues via capital, and it happens through our words and deeds. In South Africa’s past, The Man who perpetrated much of the abuse was white South Africa, and they are still far from blameless. But the abusers of power can be of any race or political persuasion, and can emerge from those same working classes.
And such is the case with Julius Malema – The New Man.