In commemoration of Africa Day, Unisa hosted the 3rd annual Thabo Mbeki lecture on Thursday night. Four former African presidents discussed the politics of development, but the real story of the night sat in the front row. Julius Malema, in a red T-shirt sporting the face of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, seemed especially to enjoy the thinly veiled barbs against the current ANC leadership.
When I decided to be a “real” journalist, one who is paid for shifting words around on a page, I was determined to tell the stories South African media missed. I was determined to tell the stories that prove to South Africans we are not as unique as we think we are, our problems are not exceptional. I was determined to tell stories that placed South Africa within the context of a whole world. Most of all, I was determined not to chase after Julius Malema.
There were far too many journalists who seemed to have already devoted their lives to running after every soundbite he dished out. I understood his appeal. I understood the threat he presented to South Africa, but I was fed up with the bluster about Malema. In between the charge to the next scandalous Malema headline I sought to tell the stories of the Arab Spring – stories that had great store for South Africans well beyond its impact on the price of petrol.
And for the most part I’ve managed to stay true to my ambitions. I still write stories of the Arab Spring – it is so much more than a seasonal change in regional temperatures. I’ve even tried to tell the stories of Africa as a continent with plural identities, plural challenges and plural promises. I’ve tried to locate South Africa’s place in the world through the caprice of its international relations. And except for isolated brushes with stories on the periphery of the Malema circus, I’ve been able to keep away from the maddening world of the young lions.
It has been some time since the young lions were left to lick their wounds on the margins of polite society. Replacing them these last two weeks has been a great flap about a bad painting. There is more to this world than a South African president with a mortally wounded ego. Removing my head from the gigantic tin of paint then, I sought to find out how the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi would be received when he delivered the annual Thabo Mbeki lecture at the University of South Africa.
On my way into the ZK Matthews Great Hall, I met Ethiopian refugees from the Ogaden, Ethiopia’s factious Somali region, who had travelled to Pretoria to heckle Zenawi and if they could, slip in a question or two about his authority to speak on such a revered platform. I was eager to find out how Zenawi would react. I was equally eager to find out how Mbeki would explain his implicit endorsement of a man with a rather chequered human rights record.
Yet, even before Brigalia Bam announced Zenawi had not made it, citing urgent work at home, the show was stolen by Julius Malema. Dressed in a red Zanu-PF shirt proudly sporting the face of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Malema’s entrance into the hall was greeted by a raucous cheer. After a few moments of bewilderment, I realised people were actually cheering for Malema. Accompanied by his full team of sidekicks, Floyd Shivambu, Sindiso Magaqa and Magdalene Moonsamy, Malema’s reception was rivalled only by Mbeki’s.
When speakers acknowledged the presence of deputy minister of science and technology Derek Hanekom, who is also the chairman of the disciplinary committee that kicked Malema out of the ANC, the atmosphere suddenly turned hostile. There were noisy jeers. And yet every time Malema moved from his seat, the crowd cheered warmly, chanting “Juju”. And though Malema knew well the statement he was making by attending the event, he shrugged off the cheers, trying his best to look the part of a simple audience member – albeit one in the pound seat.
And just like that, I became the journalist I promised myself I never would be. I chased Malema throughout the night, noting his reaction throughout the speeches and the ensuing discussion. After an opening address in which former Unisa principal Barney Pityana, lambasted the ANC leadership for “institutionalised mediocrity” after the enactment of what he termed the “Polokwane revolution”, Malema guffawed with laughter, elbowing his friend beside him to share his mirth.
`As Pityana continued to slate the ANC leadership for a lack of intellect, a lack of moral fibre and indulging its penchant for self-interest, Malema shared in the laughter, clearly enjoying the ANC’s public pasting.
And yet, was he not aware of the irony of his being there, gleefully enjoying Zuma’s fall in popularity as he once did Mbeki’s? The entire event was the antithesis of the song and dance that usually accompanies Zuma. This, after all, was an Mbeki event – where the idea of “Africa” is more wholesome, a little more tangible and where the speakers quote Plato.
As I chased Malema through the crowds, I found him conveniently speaking to an SABC reporter. “This is the kind of intellectual debate we have been missing,” he said, adding it was a fitting way to mark Africa Day.
We may sneer in derision as much as we want, Malema seems to be as popular as ever. And if the audience reaction to Pityana’s diatribe against the ruling party was anything to go by, Zuma is extremely unpopular.
As Malema disappeared into the crowd, I packed my camera and computer away a little wiser about the irrepressible appeal of Malema and that painting. It’s not them alone – it’s what they represent, the common sense that so dangerously threatens the way things are, the darned status quo. DM