About time! The media should've told Malema to EFF off long ago
He's never hidden his disdain for a free press, and now the damage is already done
Nine years ago, a person told me I was racist for suggesting Julius Malema was a bully with totalitarian, anti-democratic tendencies. This weekend I read an opinion piece by that very same person, explaining that Malema is a bully with totalitarian, anti-democratic tendencies.
I must confess I was confused by the accusation back in 2009. We didn’t yet know Malema had just helped install a decade-long blight on SA, but we did know he had publicly vowed to murder people on behalf of that blight, not to mention suggesting that alleged rape victim “Khwezi” had enjoyed her ordeal. At the time I thought it was pretty obvious that Malema’s petticoats were showing.
Indeed, a year later he wasn’t even trying to disguise his embrace of kragdadigheid. In an infamous press conference he called the BBC’s Jonah Fisher a “bastard” and “bloody agent”, before mocking Fisher’s penis and expelling him from the room.
It was the moment Malema showed us, plainly and unequivocally, who and what he is.
But it was also the moment many in the local media similarly pinned their colours to the mast. Because instead of asking Malema to respond to Fisher’s charge of hypocrisy, or challenging his expulsion, or simply walking out in solidarity, they giggled, and Malema was made.
It wasn’t exactly that they were in love with Malema. Instead, I think, they were in thrall to him, like children living in awe and fear of a charismatic flake of a father who charms them one day and roars at them the next. It was journalistic Stockholm Syndrome.
Of course, not everyone was acting unconsciously: a few liked what Malema was selling. A political columnist once told me that it was his gloomy belief that SA was so broken that the only solution was to burn it down and start again, and since the EFF were the only party likely to light that match, they had won his broken heart, if not his mind.
In 2014, the EFF won 6.35% of the votes cast by the 73.5% of registered voters who cast their ballot. That means the EFF represents 4.6% of registered voters in this country. There are twice as many left-handers as EFF voters in South Africa, and yet we southpaws are still considered a tiny and eccentric minority. Unsurprisingly, critics of the EFF began claiming that starstruck media were giving the party far too much coverage given its tiny size.
I’m no media analyst, but I do have Google, and in August last year I set up two Google alerts. Every time either Mmusi Maimane or Julius Malema was mentioned in a headline, news story or even a picture caption, I would get an e-mail. If there were no EFF bias, I reasoned, Maimane, as the leader of the party that won three times as many votes as the EFF in 2014, would trigger considerably more alerts than Malema.
I may have miscounted by a dozen alerts either way, but as of Monday I had received 2,120 for Maimane and 2,354 for Malema. Certainly, many hundreds of these mentions would have featured criticism or scandal, but in politics there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Good or bad, my Google alerts suggest Malema is getting more of it than the actual leader of the opposition.
The media worm, however, seems to be turning. Which asks the question: why now? Why have pundits who sat on the fence for years or who giggled at Malema’s tantrums and threats, suddenly woken up?
Have his threats against local journalists finally made them understand that, unlike in 2010, this is no laughing matter?
Has the VBS heist helped the most starry-eyed among them to see Malema and his lieutenants are products of the same ANC that gave us Jacob Zuma and state capture?
Or is it something more momentous and more secret? Have powerful benefactors started to abandon him? Is his public meltdown a symptom of a private crisis?
Whatever it is, the damage is done. The media can’t rewind the thousands of hours and millions of words it has given him since he told it so clearly what he thought of it in 2010. But it can accept that it has been played, and it can learn from this. It can think, carefully and deeply, about the difference between reporting the news and creating it, between examining and enabling.
Malema has now banned the Sunday Times from covering what he calls “my events”, perhaps his most honest phrase to date. He and his politburo have made it clear they have no interest in a free press. I assume the free press will return the favour while it is still free.