If politics is bare-knuckle boxing, South Africa has a heavyweight champion.
In the game of politics, those fighting for an advantage see anonymity as an enemy – it suggests inactivity or indifference to the needs of the populace. This is especially the case for any leader – they need to be seen to be considered in command.
In South Africa, few politicians know this better than Julius Malema, disruptive leader of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters.
It’s fair to say that outside the president, no other politician is a more prominent player in the news. There are reasons for that.
Firstly, he is interesting. While South African politics is never short of drama, few politicians purposefully step into the light and spark the interest of the media. He is well-aware of the value of the photo op, and willingly draws the media like moths to a flame.
Secondly, he knows the noisy wheel gets the attention – he’s been a political activist since the age of 9. While most boys were playing games, he was scrapping it with the big guys shaping South Africa’s democratic political identity.
It helped forge his own identity as a fighter, and an unsparing one at that.
His words as fists, he’s not afraid to strike below the belt. He’s been accused of inciting violence and stoking racial hatred, charges he simply dismisses even when they’ve resulted in severe discipline. He’s also not afraid to shift allegiance – one minute offering to kill for former president Jacob Zuma, the next waging war against him.
If there’s an opponent in his sights, it’s anyone he considers an enemy of ‘the people’ – a broad term, meaning anyone who thinks themselves downtrodden by ‘the elite’. Opponents are rejected as ‘counter-revolutionary’. It’s classic populist messaging, and earned him various labels including ‘fascist’, ‘racial nationalist’, ‘freedom-fighter’, ‘liberator’, even ‘South Africa’s Che Guevara’.
That has served him well in his political bouts in his fight for a place in parliament. But his responsibility now as a lawmaker means his activism should respect the law. His recent calls for anyone to occupy unoccupied land are, in terms of the country’s constitution, illegal.
History suggests he probably doesn’t care.
Love Julius Malema or hate him, but what you cannot do is ignore him.
[This article originally appeared in the publication Fox Bytes (you can view it here) in the week of 28 May 2018. Growing Foxes is a school strategic intelligence programme designed by mindofafox. It is being piloted in a number of leading schools in the UK and South Africa. The app serves to support those students currently engaging with the programme. Click on the logo to find out more]