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Op-eds

When politics turns populist, the smell of blood is in the air

  • Sifrin Geoff HOME
Drama is nothing new for Julius Malema. Already making waves in 2013, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters appeared that year – in the form of a large puppet of a baby – in satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys’ show, Adapt or Fly. Uys caricatured politicians who have governed South Africa from DF Malan onwards, showing most – excluding Nelson Mandela – as horrid. He transformed himself into the characters’ features, such as PW Botha’s gesticulating finger and scowl, and John Vorster’s thick eyebrows and sinister coldness, and held “Malema” in his arms. That infant is grown up now, and some of Uys’ predictions about Malema have come true.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Apr 19, 2018

The show was set in the period before the 2014 elections, amidst the horror of Jacob Zuma possibly becoming president again. At the end, Uys raised the house lights, sat on the stage facing the audience, and appealed to those younger than 25 who hadn’t yet voted, to register and take control. If only they had, we might have avoided the nine-year Zuma disaster.

Portraying Malema, Uys threaded an analogy with Hitler. Since then, Malema has become one of the most important South African politicians – his party is the third largest, characterised by its members’ unruliness and red garb. Last Saturday, he brought Soweto’s Orlando Stadium, packed with thousands of mourners, to a standstill as he delivered his emotion-packed funeral tribute to late struggle stalwart Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Social media was abuzz afterwards, praising him.

When Uys displayed the Malema puppet in 2013, the message was to remember how Hitler, an incredibly charismatic and populist speaker, achieved power with his policy of National Socialism. He promised the German masses to fix the economy, provide jobs for everyone, bring back Germans’ dignity, and rectify the perceived injustices of the Versailles Treaty after World War I. The seemingly direct simplicity of it appealed viscerally to Germans. Even some Jews endorsed him, not knowing what was to follow.

When Malema made his potent speech at Winnie’s funeral, filled with populist slogans with which millions could identify – such as ending corruption, free education for all, jobs for all, nationalising mines and banks, expropriating land without compensation and eliminating “white monopoly capital” – some would say Uys’ cautionary voice was in the background: things aren’t as simple as the slogans.

Was Uys behaving like an irrelevant “old white man” in 2013, detached from South Africa’s new reality? Some would say yes. Others recall his sharp satirical skills during his heyday in the 1970s and ’80s, when he highlighted the apartheid state’s insanity.

In his most recent show which opened a few weeks ago, titled When in Doubt Say Darling, he plays an elderly man in the process of packing his life into boxes before entering a retirement home. The sharpness for which he was renowned was blunted. He finds nothing important in the newspapers.

Malema has made a significant, positive impact on South African politics, forcefully raising crucial issues the old guard preferred to keep quiet. For that, South Africa must thank him.

His tribute to Winnie was dramatic, both in substance and in his passionate delivery: “She put the country first, above her own personal safety… and confronted gun-carrying white men who were sworn killers of the apartheid defence force…” He addressed her directly: “You fought for what you believed was right, possessed only by your love for our people and the restoration of their dignity.”

Was Uys wrong about Malema in 2013? Is he the future president who will inject new energy into the country? Or is he a threat? His vibrant youthfulness is his drawcard, while his aggressiveness and racism towards whites is tolerated.

People said he would mature and become more reasonable. To some extent, he has, becoming more sophisticated in his politics. But who will he be tomorrow?

  • Read Geoff Sifrin’s regular columns on his blog sifrintakingissue.wordpress.com

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