Julius Malema, the Nigerian High Commissioner, and the place of Ideology in African Politics
By Femi Olugbile
Recently the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the third biggest political party in South Africa, celebrated its 10th anniversary. There were several events to mark the anniversary, including a well-publicised visit by the party’s leader to the site of the ‘Marikana Massacre’ – the killing of thirty-four striking miners by police which triggered the formation of the party. A number of cows were ceremonially slaughtered, and vats of local beer were brewed and consumed ‘to celebrate with the ancestors.’
One of the key events of the anniversary was a roundtable meeting with foreign ambassadors in the country.
Anyone who knew anything about the EFF would know that their mercurial leader was more comfortable wearing garish red t-shirts and berets and using the rambunctious language of the streets than attending formal occasions and making well-reasoned conversation. But here was Julius Malema himself, dapper in white shirt and suit, making a plug for his vision in a very civilised manner, and responding without anger to questions from the assembled ambassadors.
In the trending video of the meeting, which is circulating on the internet, the Nigerian High Commissioner at the time, Ambassador Mohammed Haruna Manta, rose to give his comments after Malema’s delivery.
Looking resplendent and self-assured in his white buban riga, Ambassador Manta gently chided Malema for continuing to speak about ‘Imperialism’ and ‘Colonialism’, as if they remained the prevailing issues of the day. Colonialism had since ended in Africa, he averred. The task before African nations was to develop themselves within the global community. Energies should be focussed on attracting Foreign Direct Investment instead of ideological partisanship which could alienate potential investors.
He had touched a sore point with Malema, whose avowed ideology for his party was ‘Marxism’. But he was not done.
The African Union had a Development Agenda for the continent for 2063. With good work and partnerships, a lot could be achieved for African people.
The video cuts to Malema standing at the podium, preparing to give his response.
There are different versions of the video on YouTube. Most of them are accompanied by commentary from bloggers. In their commentary, the EFF President – his party-members call him ‘Commander in Chief’, is said to have ‘destroyed’ the Nigerian diplomat. But Malema’s response to the Nigerian, as far as could be seen, was measured, and focused on the issues, devoid of the invective and personal abuse everyone knew him to be capable of.
Being ideologically close to China did not mean one could not do business with the West or take investment from them, he declared. But foreign investment had to be on African terms. He gave the example of Germany, with its vehicle Assembly Plant in South Africa. An EFF government would renegotiate the terms of the engagement, so that they would be required to build their cars in the country, not just assemble them. Western investors were not looking for ideological bed mates, they were after profit, wherever they could find it. That was why they would buy blood diamonds, despite knowing that the sellers were killers. He cited the example of Botswana, which had insisted it would allow the De Beers mining company access to its diamonds only if they added value. De Beers ‘hoo-ed’ and ‘hawed’, but in the end they had to submit.
In South Africa already, there were Special Development Zones and Special Economic Zones where foreign companies were welcome to invest billions of Rand, which they did willingly for their own profit. That would not change under EFF, despite the policy of land redistribution.
He took umbrage at the Nigerian diplomat’s assertion that colonialism was over in Africa. America had a military base next door in Botswana, for example. If a conflict developed, it would not take them five minutes to bomb Johannesburg into smithereens. Was that not colonialism? Could America take what it was trying to foist on Russia by putting NATO in Ukraine, its backyard?
‘Imperialism is not dead’, he thundered. ‘We understand what Putin is fighting about.’
When Malema waxed passionate, his English was all over the place, but his conviction was clear for all to see.
Africa should be one nation, with one President, one Army, one common standard of values. African leaders should be able to correct one another, he said.
‘Look at the havoc (President) Mnangagwa is causing in Zimbabwe. Why can’t Ramaphosa call him to order?’
He jumped from one to another among his favourite themes.
There should be Free Trade and no Visa requirement anywhere in Africa. South Africans had been brainwashed by whites into thinking they were better than other Africans, so they were not ready to go out and look for jobs elsewhere.
He went on and on.
This 42-year-old stormy petrel is riding the crest of a wave of youthful popularity in South Africa, a country with 51% youth unemployment and widespread disgruntlement. He might someday become President of his nation, conceivably, if he could see the sense in toning down the worst of his rhetoric. He sings the old liberation war song ‘Kill the Boer’ at political rallies, though he says he doesn’t really intend to kill any South African – it’s just a song. Some of his positions are postures rather than well thought out ideas.
And what nation would label itself ‘Marxist’ these days? China, despite the ‘Communist’ in its name, is executing a pragmatic, state-controlled Capitalism. Putin would die of embarrassment if you called him a ‘Marxist’. Old labels belong in the dustheap of History.
But Malema is stirring the pot and reaching an African audience beyond the borders of South Africa. There is widespread discontent on the continent, and a push for change that may well become a transnational movement akin to Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanism, especially when Malema’s voice is joined to other voices such as the eloquent Dr Arikana Chihombori-Quao from Zimbabwe.
Interesting times indeed, for the people of Africa.