The Malema dilemma: Is SA really as divided as he makes us think it is?
If you only listened to Twitter, you'd believe we're as bad as Trump's America. But there are other, more sane voices
“Some newspaper headlines are the opposite of what CIC Julius Malema says on Live Videos, if I didn't watch his live videos I’d be misinformed & misled. Watch CIC Julius Malema Live Videos to get facts. EFF is going to win in large numbers in 2019 National Elections. Asijiki!”
As pro-EFF tweets go, this one from last week was mild, even touching in its innocence. Many others, however, seethe with violence or hypocrisy: since the party’s senior champagne socialists have been accused of benefiting from the VBS heist, I’ve seen Twitter Fighters declare that any money, no matter its source, is legitimate if it funds the revolution.
All, however, have one thing in common: an unshakable belief in their rightness. Of course, this is the founding principle of social media – the notion that your smallest thoughts are worth publishing to a mass audience – but when politics enters the fray, the result can be the kind of unblinking self-righteousness and zombie-like repetition of doctrine normally found in religious cults.
The dogmatism of the EFF’s Twitter followers can’t help but remind one of Donald Trump’s fanbase. Indeed, they often seem to be kindred spirits. In August, two Trump supporters were photographed wearing T-shirts that proudly read: “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat.” That nihilistic schadenfreude, where you believe that cutting off your nose to spite your face is an expression of power, is a common theme over at EFF Twitter.
Perhaps it’s the volume and rancour of the noise. Perhaps it’s the distorted amount of press the EFF and similarly extreme, marginal organisations get in the mainstream media. Whatever the case, it’s easy to start believing that the parallels with Trump’s America extend to our society in general; that, like the US, we are irreparably divided in our politics and our ideas of what progress looks like; that we are fatally split in half, and that each half is pulling in a direction the other considers insanely self-destructive.
But is that impression based on any kind of reality?
When it comes to social media, the answer is obvious. If Twitter – an echo chamber full of self-selecting, fact-resistant malcontents – is telling you that you have enough fans to start your own political party, well, let’s just say that’s not a very GOOD idea.
The mainstream press, however, is trickier to challenge, partly because doing so emboldens the con artists in government and business whose excesses are kept in check by a nosy media.
And yet even the most passionate supporter of a free press has to admit that it can present a wildly skewed depiction of the world. Indeed, if media coverage reflected reality you’d be forgiven for believing Beyoncé Knowles is more important to SA than functioning primary schools, and that the current form of the Springboks is a greater concern than violence against women.
Still, there is an important distinction to be made here. The press might distort its coverage as it tries to secure consumers’ loyalty with a diet of their favourite topics, but it does not, in general, deliberately distort or bury facts in return for money. That’s the job of the public relations industry.
And it is the existence of that industry that should give us cause for optimism.
I’m not suggesting the EFF has hired a PR firm to keep it in the headlines. But the fact that the global PR industry is now worth more than $15bn a year is proof of just how vulnerable we are to believing what we’re told, and, by extension, of just how unreliable we are as judges of what is true and what isn’t. And that’s not even counting the monstrous gaslighter we call the advertising industry: if billions of humans are willing to believe that a red can of fizzy sugar water will quench your thirst or that driving a German car means you’re a successful person, it suggests we’ll believe literally anything.
So are we as divided as the clever marketers in the EFF and AfriForum have told us we are?
We’ll know at the end of May. But until then, perhaps we owe it to ourselves to admit how little we know and how malleable our emotions are, and to ask: if we’re willing to believe the worst of ourselves, based on nothing but noise and headlines, surely we must be open to the best, too?
It costs us nothing to believe that, despite the divisive rhetoric of rich politicians, most South Africans want the same things. And until we get hard evidence that suggests otherwise, perhaps we can allow ourselves the possibility that the great majority of us may be tired or angry or sometimes despairing, but that we are still pulling, together, towards the same country; towards the same future.