Beware the seductiveness of crafty leaders

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Populist EFF leader Julius Malema’s threats of violence to unseat President Jacob Zuma has some South Africans warning about a civil war (Photo by Gallo Images / Foto24 / Denzil Maregele)

ECONOMIC Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema’s threat in an Al Jazeera interview on Sunday to remove President Jacob Zuma’s government through the “barrel of a gun”, should sound an alarm as South Africa marks Freedom Day this week and Jews mark Holocaust Day next Thursday. The kneejerk resort to violence that has overtaken South African politics among students, trade unionists, taxi operators, shack dwellers and others – many of whom are actually campaigning for worthy causes – is taking this country down a dangerous road which will be hard to reverse.

Malema said the ANC used violence to suppress dissent, such as ejecting his party from parliament after they heckled Zuma: “Part of the revolutionary duty is to fight and we are not ashamed if the need arises for us to take up arms and fight.”

Dangerous words. An ANC statement said it would pursue legal action against Malema’s “inflammatory, treasonable and seditious” words.

Alarm bells are ringing in some quarters, such as the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) which called on political parties to avoid statements that could incite civil war. Bishop Abel Gabuza‚ the SACBC Justice and Peace Commission chair‚ responded to Malema’s “war rhetoric… We have seen the evil consequences of civil war in other African countries‚ including massive loss of lives‚ a refugee crisis and irreparable damage to the economy.”

South Africa has today a robust constitution, a judiciary which has repeatedly proved its independence, a free press and other institutions which, although under attack from some quarters, still function as they should. The ANC and Zuma certainly deserve to be removed from power as soon as possible after so crassly betraying the country’s dreams, but in a manner that strengthens its democratic institutions rather than weakening them – through the courts, the press, the public protector, and non-violent civilian protests.

Words lead to actions. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi thugs were energised by the charismatic Fuhrer’s use of words – such as the iconic “sieg heil!” which means “hail victory!” – calling for action against Jews and others in his path to absolute power. He wrote ‘Mein Kampf’, and went on to rule Europe.

During the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 the Hutu extremists set up radio stations and newspapers which broadcast hate propaganda, urging people to “weed out the cockroaches”, words which were translated into the killing of 800 000 Tutsis in 100 days.

In the absence of inspiring leaders, one hears wry comments these days about “President Julius Malema” one day occupying the country’s highest office, which rightly scares many South Africans. A chilling performance  in 2014 by satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys called “Adapt or Fly” already predicted the scenario in its opening scene by displaying a Malema–like doll being given advice to assist him on his rise to power by Hitler, impersonated by Uys. The show was a walk through South African history since 1945, drawing a disturbing analogy between Germany in the early 1930s and South Africa today.

When the ANC was contemplating throwing Malema out of the party in 2011 for bringing it into disrepute – before he founded the EFF – Uys commented: “Julius Malema says: ‘We must control the economy – it’s in the hands of the whites.’ Hitler said: ‘We must control the economy – it’s in the hand of the Jews.’”

Hitler, said Uys, appealed with his populist rhetoric to the millions of Germans who had no jobs, after the First World War. Malema appeals in a similar way “to the millions of South Africans who don’t have a job after the apartheid era.”

Of all the politicians in South Africa today, Malema is by far the most charismatic, evoking smiles and even some fondness for his boisterous campaigns pointing at issues of serious concern to the country, including his attacks against Zuma and the ANC. Tolerance for his extreme rhetoric comes even from people who would be the first to suffer under a government run by him.

Beware of the craftiness of seductive politicians who woo people with their charisma into overlooking their thuggishness, and then move into the power centre. Hitler came to power through exploiting German democracy, combined with thuggery.

Malema demands loudly today that Zuma must adhere strictly to the constitution, and most South Africans applaud him for this. But will he also insist on strict adherence to the constitution when he is in power and others oppose him?

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email geoffs@icon.co.za)

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