Is SA racist enough for Malema?

How many voters is the EFF likely to attract with its strategy of targeting 'whiteness' now that 'Zumaness' is gone?

When the SA Institute of Race Relations (IRR) released the results of its latest survey last week, one has to wonder how many people believed it.

I remember coming across similar survey results released by the same IRR a few years ago and being genuinely surprised that most people in this country are not only not particularly racist in their thinking – most of them said they’d never even experienced racism directly.

This seemed to go against the grain of everything I thought I understood about South Africa – but when I started to compare the data to my everyday experiences, it started to seem less weird.

Most of the black people I’ve met have only been friendly towards me. Even when they don’t know me from a bar of soap in the middle of Soweto, it feels like I am being given the benefit of the doubt and the chance to be judged as an individual.

In case you missed it, the overwhelming sentiment from the IRR’s survey was that most South Africans just want to get along and live normal lives. They want more and better jobs. They’re worried about crime … and so on. They feel white people need to accept that they can’t be the recipients of any special treatment or privilege any more, and that corrective measures along racial lines are still needed in society – but the results would also clearly lead one to conclude that racial hatred is perhaps not our biggest problem in the year 2018.

You can read the survey report here.

I don’t know if such a telephone survey of a mere one thousand people can be considered representative, but you can only assume proper due care was taken and that this was good research – the fact that the results have stayed largely consistent over the years should also make you feel inclined to accept them.

Still, it’s surprising. We’ve grown used to headlines about racism every week, while one politician in particular has recently fallen back on loud and naked racist rhetoric to stay at the top of public consciousness.

But why has Julius Malema started sounding way more racist again since the rise of Cyril Ramaphosa and the removal of Jacob Zuma? Obviously, he’s the kind of guy who operates best when he’s perceived to be battling various enemies, and fighting “whiteness” was clearly the next best thing once Zuma exited stage left. The warrior persona has served Malema and his other “fighters” well over the years.

It should also be no surprise that Malema continues to draw the crowds wherever he goes and has cultivated a fanatical cult-like loyalty among his followers, who don’t take kindly to any criticism of Saint Malema and his righteous cohort. But that doesn’t mean he represents any kind of genuine majority.

He’s a performer. Arguably, he’s even entertaining. But I’d argue his defiance of “whiteness” is something that, on a fundamental level, is effective political theatre. Even all these years after the fall of apartheid, there’s still some shock value – even among black people – in a young black man picking a fight with an older white man such as Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Athol Trollip and telling Trollip and the DA he’s going to “slit their throats” – among other choice threats.

Similarly, the issue of land expropriation without compensation is seen by many as the ultimate underdog triumph against the economic balance of power that was established in our transition to democracy, which – make no mistake about it – allowed many of the beneficiaries of racist apartheid legislation to keep ill-gotten gains and which has left a lot of resentment in its wake.

However, the practicalities and utter messiness of land expropriation are not what I want to get into here.

Rather, it’s to answer the simple question of whether Malema is right to believe he’s getting more popular than ever and whether his strategy of targeting “whiteness” as the enemy will continue to pay long-term dividends.

I’m not so sure. In fact, I think what’s really happening is that Malema realised his primary support base of poor and young black voters was beginning to wonder if he could really be relied on to represent their anger adequately.

His decision to side with the DA against the ANC in 2016 had many of those who’d voted EFF wondering how they’d ended up with a centre-right party in charge of their city when they’d actually voted for the most left-wing-styled political party around. The EFF had declined to even be part of any coalition governments in the big metros where they handed power to the DA with basically no strings attached.

It seemed Malema had “sold out” to white interests, a suspicion that was regularly and eagerly fed by Andile Mngxitama of Black First Land First (BLF).

Depending on who you believe, this strategy may even have attracted a few EFF voters to join the BLF instead. So if you’re as cynical as I am, you’ll conclude Malema is now merely trying to regain the trust and support of disenchanted black “nativists”.

Possibly, he’ll succeed. But where will that leave him in the bigger picture? In the last elections, the EFF got just over 6% of the vote. Even if you believe Malema and he doubles that figure, he and his party will eventually hit a ceiling beyond which there just won’t be enough people left to respond to his extremist rhetoric.

He may then have to face the frustrating conclusion that his particular brand of “populism” may not be all that “popular” after all. If he doesn’t take the ANC up on its offer to welcome him back into its broad church, he may well remain on the fringes of politics no matter how much noise he makes – simply because there just aren’t enough fellow supposed “racists” around to vote for him.

But being a smart and adaptable politician, I also have no doubt he’ll shamelessly reinvent himself in any number of ways to stay relevant between now and 2081, when he’ll be 100 years old and possibly still freaking out someone from some or other group about something or the other.

I’ll be 102, but hopefully by then I won’t have to keep telling people to have a little more faith that our shared humanity will eventually prevail over all this fear-mongering on all sides.

Citizen digital editor Charles Cilliers

Citizen digital editor Charles Cilliers

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