04/04/2018 11:31 SAST | Updated 04/04/2018 11:32 SAST

Dear Julius, Your Words Matter

"You are doing yourself and South Africa a disservice by making 'being white' the enemy.”

Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of South Africa's Economic Freedom Fighters.
Siphiwe Sibeko/ TPX/ Reuters
Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of South Africa's Economic Freedom Fighters.


You have come a long way since the days when you, as the president of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), told a crowd that you would "kill for Zuma". Much time has passed since the days when you defended Jacob Zuma by disparaging a woman, thus adding insult to extreme injury.

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In fact, over the years, you have become a man people like listening to as they enjoy your predictions on the ANC - none better than the accurate timeline you provided for the Gwede Mantashe turnaround on the Zuma Cabinet reshuffle in 2017.

With your reduction in body weight and increase in academic qualifications, you became a media darling, demanding journalists' undivided attention at every news conference held by the Economic Freedom Fighters, especially during the time when you were outspoken and undoubtedly the greatest nemesis of ex-president Zuma.

You captivated South Africans and we could be forgiven for thinking you had reached a level of ultimate maturity when you were able to admit that you were wrong in your support for Zuma and apologised to the South African people for your role in making him president of our country.

However, since Zuma's disappearance from the political arena and his absence as our perpetual punching bag, you, dear EFF commander in chief Malema, seem to have upped your rhetoric to levels that are potentially destructive to our country and its people.

I know that you are likely to dismiss me as a clueless member of the media, but I am not a member of the media, I am just a mother and an observant, at-the-bottom-of-the-totem-pole South African. I am not on the payroll of any media house or anyone else for that matter, but I am certainly extremely disturbed by your divisive rhetoric.

In 2018, the situation for most South Africans has not improved, as we hold on to apartheid-era beliefs and practices.

Your speeches of late seem to be aimed at appealing to the lowest common denominator rather than appealing to what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature".

There is no disputing the unspeakable wrong done by colonialism and apartheid, and the damage that it has caused. South Africa suffered a double whammy when our colonial bosses were replaced by our apartheid "baas", who legalised white supremacist ideology and entrenched in our psyche the "us versus them" way of thinking, which aimed purely at highlighting our differences rather than our common humanity.

They categorised us and placed us into group areas, townships and homelands. For them, we were a collective and they were completely oblivious to our individual talents, abilities and interests. They decided which jobs we could do and which ones were reserved for others; they decided what is menial and what is skilled work. They decided what work was worth remunerating well, paying those who work in offices pushing a pen far more than those keeping the offices clean and tidy while pushing a mop and swinging a feather duster.

It was their hierarchy of employment that taught us that a university degree is worth more than the artisan training of a plumber or an electrician, resulting in the perception that one is more prestigious than the other and that academic qualifications indicate greater intellect.

They decided which leafy suburbs were prime property reserved for themselves and those like them and to which barren and desolate pieces of land they could banish those of us they considered less than them.

All these events now lie more than two decades behind us, as the apartheid regime was exiled to the pages of our history books and our government became more reflective of the majority of its people in 1994. Yet, in 2018, the situation for most South Africans has not improved, as we hold on to apartheid-era beliefs and practices.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

The bulk of South Africans are still suffering the same undignified existence of living in poverty, plagued by violence and substance abuse. The situation remains dire for those unlucky enough not to have gone to university or post-schooling training, or who did not get one of the prized positions in government that were often reserved for those with political party affiliations or who shared kinship or friendship.

For South Africans unable to join the exodus out of the townships into the suburbs, life remains miserable as they continue to live in horrendous conditions in areas that still lack basic services.

Our insistence on remunerating those who organise our homes and rear our children or who plant and prune our trees, knowing just when to do whatever is necessary to make dreary pieces of land bloom and produce, is continuing the colonialist thinking that less value is attached to work that requires physical skill and exertion than to that which does not. One of our society's biggest badges of shame must be the fact that those who work themselves to the bone every day for more hours than is physically tenable remain unable to feed their children or live in dignified circumstances.

You, commander in chief of the EFF, have without a doubt aligned yourself to the plight of these millions of South Africans that remain on the margins of our society, despite many of them being in full-time employment. Despite their long hours of labour in homes, hotels and businesses, many of which are worth millions of rands, too many of our fellow South Africans earn meagre salaries that force them to return to draughty and wet homes in areas located far from their place of work, often commuting by more than one unreliable means of public transport.

However, your solution to the problems faced by the majority of South Africans is too simplistic.

It is true that the land must belong to all its people and that ownership of land is central to the economic progress of any society, but to present this as the panacea that we require to solve all our problems is short-sighted.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
A mother and child walk past corrugated iron left by residents who intended to build an informal settlement at an open land in Nellmapius township, 20 km (12 miles) east of Pretoria, November 13, 2014. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

It means very little to people to have a piece of land that they can call their own when they live on it in corrugated iron and wooden structures with no services. Our people need ownership of decent and suitable houses, varying in the number of rooms available, according to each family's needs; no more "one size fits all" houses that are devoid of any comfortable ambience and completely lacking a welcoming environment.

Townships, as well as informal settlements, must be turned into suburbs, with avenues and parks and lights and sidewalks. With functioning schools and well-run clinics that serve our people. People should not be forced to travel for hours at a horrendously high cost to their family budgets simply to get to their place of work.

Home ownership of appealing, functional homes in areas that are safe is what will reduce the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Our government has proved incapable of delivering quality housing at a rate that South Africans require, therefore business and industry must step up.

Mr Malema, the countries with economies of which you are so in awe look very different when you speak to people without government handlers present or engage with those who lived under that system.

Instead of sponsoring sports stadiums, how about sponsoring the development and upgrading of an informal settlement? No problem with areas being called FNBville or InBev Heights or Naspers Park if businesses that are always focussed on economies of scale to maximise profits for their shareholders or even to plough back into the companies instead make profits available to build houses of brick and mortar for fellow South Africans, and get a tax break for their efforts. The painful truth is that big business and the titans of industry are better able to complete projects efficiently and cost-effectively.

The government, Mr Malema, is ineffective when they do things that the private sector does better - even I, who tend to see the common ownership of means of production narrative as more compassionate, must admit that. Thus, if we can convince big businesses that it is better for their obscene profits to be used for the benefit of all South Africans for a period of time and not only for the benefit of a privileged few, maybe it will be possible for all South Africans to live in dignity.

One thing is sure, the theory that sounds like the answer to all societal woes in a Sociology 101 lecture has failed and continues to fail the masses, worldwide. Mr Malema, the countries with economies of which you are so in awe look very different when you speak to people without government handlers present or engage with those who lived under that system.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
Julius Malema, leader of South Africa's Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), gestures during a media briefing in Alexander township near Sandton, South Africa August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

The ANC-led government has built our democratic South Africa on the fault lines of the apartheid state and you, dear Mr Malema, seem intent on following suit.

For the ANC, the new South Africa meant fleeing the townships into the suburbs, while deserting our schools for private and previously Model C schools, leaving those unable to join the exodus to fend for themselves, as political and community leaders were no longer their neighbours, and no longer concerned with the problems and struggles facing communities.

In short, for the post-1994 South African, a career and money meant that previously white areas were sought out to show that we had arrived in the new South Africa. Although you, as the commander in chief of the EFF, have committed yourself to fight for those stuck in poverty and for whom the dream of the new South Africa remains an illusion, you too seem to perpetuate the ills of the apartheid regime.

You seem to bow at the altar of academia, believing that the highest form of academic qualification means much more than it actually does. All it means is that someone was able to conduct scientific research and that they could make a contribution to knowledge in one specific area. It is not the holy grail that results in omnipotence, nor is it an elixir of wisdom. A scholar in astrophysics may know very little about the developments during the Ming dynasty or a psychologist who has reached the highest level in his or her academic field may know nothing about unjustified enrichment in the law of delict.

You see, Mr Malema, ascribing all ability and knowledge to those who have reached the highest level of academic achievement while demeaning the work done by cleaners and security guards is no different to the colonialist who failed to recognise that we all have different abilities, interests and opportunities and that all honest work is noble. By failing to recognise this truth, we will continue to devalue the people who are able to fix our toilets or who risk their lives to keep us safe. Perpetuating disregard and disrespect for work that does not require a university degree will result in continued lack of adequate remuneration and the majority of South Africans will remain the working poor.

Mr Malema, your incessant "us versus them" arguments are no different in tenor and in kind to those espoused under 48 years of National Party rule. Your refusal to see people as individuals, lumping them all together as white people, is no better than the apartheid bosses. Your failure to see the humanity of those who benefitted under apartheid is leading to speeches that rile emotions of anger and dislike as if all whites, regardless of their attrition, acts of kindness or acceptance of others, will forever be condemned and unworthy of compassion.

EFF commander in chief Malema, your words matter. Millions of South Africans listen to your every word and while you are very capable of being affable and kind to white people when you speak to them one on one, not everyone has that ability. Even your gentle giant and mild-mannered second in command, Floyd Shivambu, uncharacteristically assaulted a white journalist. I believe that the echo chamber in which you find yourselves, where white people are demeaned and thus viewed as less than human, contributed to the atypical behaviour of Shivambu.

We need all South Africans, from all backgrounds and heritage, to help us build a better future for all our citizens.

You should not get me wrong, Mr Malema; I am not speaking on behalf of white people, for they are able to do that for themselves.

I speak to you because I believe that you are doing yourself and South Africa a disservice by making "being white" the enemy. Of course, you must protest and go after those who are recalcitrant and who continue to treat fellow South Africans as lesser beings, but to define the value of any South African by the colour of his or her skin is straight from the playbook of our apartheid rulers. And let us be honest, two wrongs simply do not make a right.

You are better than that. Your ability to learn and grow as a person and as a leader is hard to overlook, Mr Malema; however, the language you are engaging in at present is dangerous and it will lead us back to the ideology of the past where the colour of one's skin determines one's worth.

You will do your legacy and South Africa a great honour if you were to be more inclusive and require all South Africans, regardless of their heritage, to assist in the fight against poverty, to help rid our communities of the scourge of violence, gangsterism and substance abuse.

I do believe you when you say that you do not hate white people, but the truth is, Mr Malema, the totality of your words is not indicative of an absence of hate.

As former United States president Bill Clinton once said: "...the words we use really do matter because there's this vast echo chamber, and they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike. They fall on the connected and the unhinged alike". I do not think that you will physically harm those you speak of so disparagingly in your public speeches, but those who hear your words might.

Mike Hutchings / Reuters
Supporters of Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

We need all South Africans, from all backgrounds and heritages, to help us build a better future for all our citizens. Ability and talent are not colour-specific and we all need to pitch in and make South Africa better.

As you continue to lead and influence millions of South Africans, I want to leave you with another Clinton quote: "...what we advocate, commensurate with our position and responsibility, we have to take responsibility for".

We owe that to our beloved South Africa and to those who paid the ultimate price so that South Africans, regardless of the colour of their skin, can be respected, valued and able to live in dignity.