The Media’s love affair with Julius Malema
Julius Malema, love him or hate him, is in the news again. Or shall I say, still. It’s no secret that the South African media love the ubiquitous ANC Youth League President, or as Floyd Shivambu, the League’s spokesperson likes to refer to him, “the President”. And why not? His near-daily exploits are the stuff of many an editor’s wet dream. Edgy, controversial and antagonistic, the man certainly knows how to get attention and keep it. And of course the kinds of attention-grabbing statements and publicity stunts he is now well-known for sell newspapers, draws in a readership and get advertising revenue flowing. Despite his detractors’ claims of stupidity and simple-mindedness, the evidence is stacking up that Mr. Malema is in fact rather clever in his own way and is playing the media like a well-tuned fiddle.
Nary a day goes by without images of our favourite Youth League President being splashed across front pages of our newspapers and online news services, and while it may not be true that “no publicity is bad publicity”, the adage does bear some weight in this context. Of late, that context has been the widely-publicised hate speech trial recently concluded in the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg, which at this time is awaiting judgement. For those who followed the court case itself, and not the mud-slinging that occurred outside it, the debate inside the courtroom was rather important and as such has had a significant presence in the public mind. More than this, and in no small part as a result of the high profile nature of the case, the exchange has been of a very high quality and an intensity that would put many a Friday night legal drama to shame, thanks in no small part to the level of experience and seniority on display from the legal fraternity. Despite this however, the headlines we are reading include such juicy tidbits as Winnie Madikizela–Mandela’s pre facto proclamation of victory and posturing outside the court buildings or Mr. Malema’s own extra-court dancing, singing and built-to-be-headline statements. The actual discourse within the courtroom has seemingly been sidelined in favour of sensationalist nonsense. It seems to me and to at least one young journalist who has been covering the proceedings from inside the court, that this trend of flattening the depth, complexity and weight of the situation into an entertaining two-dimensional circus act for the purpose of selling papers is a troubling indication of the lack of foresight and responsibility within the news media in South Africa.
When you ignore a desperate, impoverished, impressionable, marginalised, uneducated youth in the way that the senior caucus of the ANC seems to have done, men like Malema and their ‘radical’ ideas have a platform to stand on and a mass of people who have nothing to lose to propel them into power. All the logic and political self-righteous posturing in the world is not going to help Malema’s adversaries both outside and within the ANC, when he can happily outmanoeuvre them with clumsy but effective populist rhetoric, designed specifically for an audience that does not recognise gift-wrapped bull shit for what it is but relishes the idea of the quick and decisive action that Mr. Malema is promising them – no matter how short sighted it may be or how often his reasoning contradicts itself. He has proven himself a shrewd (if crude) political navigator. By flaunting the traditional rules of politics and public office, he has not only managed to out-play his competitors within the ANC Youth League, he has also dragged his naysayers down to his level by forcing them to engage in a war of words, and this is where he is at his best. Despite the assertion by DA leader Helen Zille that Mr. Malema would lose a televised debate with herself or any of one of her colleagues, his strategy is simply never to engage in any such logical exchange, but instead to bait them into an exchange of statements and counter-statements using newspapers and television broadcasters as a medium. Here, where he is in his element, he is sure to win out, as his traditional shock-tactic headlines are much tastier fare for editors than his opponents comparatively drab responses.
So where is Mr. Malema going with all of this? Some commentators have speculated that he will one day be our next president. Flanking the controversial Youth League leader, Political survivor and ANC heavyweight Winnie Madikizela-Mandela even referred to him as “our next president” outside the court buildings. Is it preposterous to imagine that “one day” may be a lot sooner than most people dare to think? We’ve seen the results of the fickle nature of ANC internal politics a number of times. Knives are buried in backs, power plays unfurled in a matter of days and previously popular candidates are given their marching orders. In only a few years we have another national election. President Zuma has already made it clear he would like to run for another term. Meanwhile there are mutterings of a plot to oust him from within the senior circles of the ANC, and the Youth League president has his guns out for both the President and ANC General Secretary Mantashe. And he’s been increasing the aggressiveness of his anti-Zuma/Mantashe campaign in recent weeks. A lot can happen in a year, and by the look of things, Malema is accelerating his agenda.
Back then, for a moment, to the news media. Here is a dangerous man, who displays many of the tendencies of our northern neighbour state’s President-for-life, Robert Mugabe. The kind of characteristics that should be setting off alarm bells in your head if you enjoy living in a free and mostly functioning democracy. And yet the news media laps up his every word and conscientiously regurgitates it for all to read, sprouting up ‘scandalous’ headlines on street light poles and giving him a free loudspeaker to spread his vitriolic venom. When he steps up behind the podium and delivers his acceptance speech and declares the Kingdom of South Africa his to rule for life, will these editors and media houses hang their heads in shame for being a gear in the Malema express? Will they cry out for help when he shuts down their offices and pushes through whatever Information Bill amendments he pleases? The media can be a voice for the quiet, boring voice of reason too. It may not get them such a tidy bottom line, but at least there would be a bottom line to be had in years to come.
Photo by the Zimbabwean Mail