Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Lion and the Spear

Julius Malema. Very few names in contemporary South African politics provoke a more polarised response from the ordinary people. On the one hand, he induces sneering criticism and relentless ridicule. On the other, he is venerated as a political martyr and a revolutionary for the people. So which is it?

Julius is well-known for putting his foot in his mouth. While you pause and amuse yourself with that image, consider the phrase for just a second: "Put his foot in his mouth". If I were to directly translate that into isiXhosa, my Xhosa friends would think Julius was flexible and taut because it would be taken literally, which is obviously not the case. My point is that we cannot judge Julius's linguistic faux pas by English standards. There is a rich figurative imagery in isiXhosa that English-speakers will never quite grasp. We should be trying to decipher his message, rather than his dubious presentation.

I think the problem with Julius's "revolutionary" rhetoric is that he does not fit the image of a revolutionary. Che Guevara, Mahatma Gandhi and Malcolm X looked like they were engaged in struggle for their very survival. Even with his military cap, Julius looks engaged in a struggle to the front of a buffet queue. Leads one to think: what could he possibly want to revolt against? What is it that gets his throat grumbling louder than his stomach? In an interview I saw a while ago, a subdued Julius explained himself candidly. Yesterday, the struggle was against Apartheid: a struggle against overt oppression and institutionalised racism perpetrated against the non-white population of South Africa. Today, there is another sinister threat to the people, economic slavery. With this I totally agree: as a developing nation, we are subject to a concerted effort by developed nations to maintain their own wealth. It is a simple principle of putting national and domestic corporations' interests first. While our economy has grown over the past decade, youth unemployment has reached 40%, with total unemployment at 25%. The statistics on poverty, homelessness, medical accessibility, the gap between rich and poor are all similarly disturbing. These numbers show that running our country like a business is not in the best interests of the people from whom government collects taxes. Is the role of tax not to provide utilities and services to the people? Why are they going into paying the interest on loans that were granted to the Apartheid government? All very legitimate concerns, and possibly partial explanations for revolutionary rhetoric. I would suggest that, although the methods employed and the behaviour displayed by Julius and the ANCYL are often abhorrent and disrespectful, one cannot help feeling that they are fighting a legitimate battle. A battle they will fail to win until they can properly communicate their ideas and ideals, until they seriously take up a stance against corruption and profiteering, until they become more inclusive, until they accept that perceived cultural superiority is no grounds for arrogance, and until they value educated debate over armed struggle. Julius is right to point out that the disparities in wealth in South Africa still run along racial lines, largely as a result of foreign ownership of our resources. He is not, however, the right man to lead a revolution against it.

So on to the story of the day. The Spear of the Nation by Brett Murray has a piece of art up at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. The artwork shows Jacob Zuma in a really cool pose, except that his "Spear of the Nation" is hanging out of his pants. I guess that in terms of artistic expression, it was an indictment on JZ's sexual virilty and raging heterosexuality. After all, the man does have four wives and some other special ladies in his life. He has also been charged with rape, corruption and cronyism. So surely this piece of satire is justified?

The short answer is: no. He has never been convicted of any of these crimes, and his customs allow him to marry more than one woman, like most customs around the world. Also, he is a popular president, despite what the media portrays. Just imagine the outrage if Helen Zille were painted in the same way, with her penis hanging out (DON'T get ideas). The political inuendo's would be obvious, but it would be in very bad taste. And no one wants to see it. I am in no way defending JZ; all I am saying is that political satire has always had a proud place in South African social commentary. Zapiro is a master of it. But when it sinks to this level, there must surely be resistance from decent people. It is the comedy equivalent of toilet humour. The boxing equivalent of a cheap shot. It is the rugby equivalent of Bryce Lawrence. We can do better than this people.

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