Until Julius Comes… Adventures in the Political Jungle by Richard Poplak
In 2011, an Irish journalist based in Cape Town wrote a book about Julius Malema, called An Inconvenient Youth, and the New ANC. The author, Fiona Ford, titled her first chapter ‘The devil wears Breitling’. Ford writes that she was with Malema in Caracas, Venezuela, for the conference of the World Federation of Democratic Youth. It’s Saturday, 24 April 2010. Back in South Africa, on Monday, 26 April, the ANC were planning to meet to decide on suitable “disciplinary measures to deal with the youth” Julius Malema.
Ford describes sitting with Malema in the Caracas hotel and his agitation about the hearings, but what stands out are his fashion comments delivered to Ford “with scorn, pity and dismay, all rolled into one”.
“The leather in your shoes is supposed to match the leather in your belt and your watch. So if you wear brown leather shoes,” he tells her, “you must wear a brown leather belt, and a brown leather watch.”
Three years later, Richard Poplak is on the 2014 electoral campaign of Julius Malema’s fledgling party, the Economic Freedom Fighters. And what pops up but fashion and the red beret, the “primary piece of ordinance” in the EFF’s “prêt-à-porter arsenal”. Poplak goes on to quote Walter Benjamin on the “intersection of politics and fashion” (don’t get nervous – this is the sort of erudite reference Daily Maverick readers expect) but the catching issue here is fashion: the production and marketing of something, reputedly “new”. Ford’s excellent book had only one glaring error: it wasn’t a ‘new’ ANC that Malema was fashioning, but his own political entity.
If after reading Ford, you sat up, replaced the screw top on the chardonnay or ordered a Coke with out the klippies, and reconsidered your blasé notions of South Africa’s loudest and most “inconvenient” youth; after reading Poplak, you will skip the chardonnay and Klippies, and go straight to the spook and diesel.
Poplak points out – correctly – that the Democratic Alliance candidates in the 2014 election were not “bloodthirsty enough. Not battle-hardened enough”. What turns Mmusi Maimane on is macroeconomics, which is just not going to cut it in the brick-flinging, Molotov cocktail arena of South African politics. As he says, “no matter how much bullshit they [the EFF] spew, those berets scream ‘revolution’. And revolution is, sadly, sexier than macroeconomics”.
The great joy of being on the campaign trail with Poplak though is not only the insights into Julius Malema but also the side characters. Take Kenny Kunene and his Patriotic Alliance Party. Poplak reminds us of the fact that Kunene “isn’t the biggest piece of shit in South Africa” and that his talk about “helping children as often as Michael Jackson did, which, I’ll admit, is always a cause for worry” are not really the issues. What is the issue is that “no one knows what he does” since he stopped his life of crime and “got into the Brave New South African economy of producing nothing”. (He “won tenders” apparently.)
His take on Mamphela Ramphele is summed up in the preamble to the chapter devoted to her: “Destiny’s Child: In which we consume lox and cream-cheese bagels with the Worst. Politician. Ever.” Say no more.
And if you thought President Jacob Zuma was all about the laugh (Heh, HEH, heh, heh), then Poplak’s take on him is chilling. Zuma “radiates no intelligence… he is not a man of purpose, but a man of power”, and that does not bode well for the country.
Poplak’s style and language is mesmerising; the sentences flow through inflamed urban streets, splash against discordant images, and swirl around people who we know through their public presence, but who he engulfs with wave after wave of detail. His chapter on Trevor Manuel is searing and wickedly funny, filled with the sort niggles, usually ignored, that legends always leave in their trail. Who would have thought our country’s economic destiny was forged “by way of grammar”?
Julius Malema recently addressed the Cape Town Press Club. The venue was Kelvin Grove – yes, I know, last bastion, white privilege, racist, anti-Semitic, etcetera – ¬and Malema read his audience perfectly. OK the literacy requirement was at the level of: “Here is Jacob. Here is Helen. Jacob and Helen go up the hill”, but still, he nailed it.
Malema in front of this audience became a praise poet for Helen Suzman, an admirer of Helen Zille (whom he never once referred to as ‘Madam’), and a damning critic of both President Jacob Zuma and and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, whom he speared with the comment that “Cyril loves money more than people”, referring to the Lonmin mine workers killed at Marikana. He also said that as he helped put Zuma in power, he would help Zuma lose that power. They loved it.
Malema was and is the consummate politician. Poplak resorts to gamer jargon to capture Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters. “In the grimy scrim of South African politics, the Angry Birds gamer is a proxy for [the EFF], who are merrily catapulting ‘enraged urban youth’ into a piggish ruling party’s teetering political home.”
But is not just the ANC’s political home that is under threat from the EFF. It is the nation’s political metropolis. At the EFF’s final election rally, Poplak is at his descriptive best as Malema makes his entrance: “Fighters in white golf shirts and men in ersatz military uniforms… 30 bikers on screaming hogs and sport bikes, red-lining their engines to a slaughtered-pig squeal of mechanical agony”. There’s more. It’s a great essay.
But, as he says, the policies Malema promises the crowd have never worked, and the EFF party apparatchiks will not make them work “because none of them have actually done anything”.
But that’s a trifling detail when Julius comes.
[This review first appeared in the Cape Times, 19 September, 2014]