Whisper it: Julius Malema’s message falling on black, middle class ears—and the ground is receptive

This much-courted vote had long been thought as up for the grab by Mmusi Maimane's DA. And even the ruling ANC has much to be worried about.

LIMPOPO:  A few miles east off the four-way stop that terminates the R573 is the small town of Marble Hall, a colourful and history-rich yet curiously soulless outpost nearly three hours north-east of Johannesburg.

Folklore has it that Marble Hall owes its existence to the copious quantities of marble discovered here 100 years ago—and with nearly all tombstones made of one, there may be something to it.

On the surface, it could be representative of South Africa’s transformation, a word that evokes both militant feelings and alarm depending on which side of the race divide you sit on in this young democracy of just 21 years. 

A linear but dominantly rural town, it still boasts an array of banks, with locals forming long queues at the automated teller machines for money nearly instantly spent in the nearby retail stores which, like the banks, are so descriptive of South African multinationals. But despite the ubiquity of branded shopping bags, a closer look gives the depth away—none of the banks could change dollars into the local rand currency.

You will also espy smaller stores with security grilles reaching the roof, manned by the odd Pakistani or Indian. 

White swagger

More noticeable is the swaggered presence of the white locals, from the big burly farmer types drawing up in their pick-up (or bakkies as the South Africans call them) to the female drivers who hurl choice words and gestures at black drivers, nearly calling up a heart attack in the process. 

It is not about manic driving: for one who frequents the country, it is easy to identify the nuance— blacks are incompetent—either as drivers or as managers of state. 

And it is in such apoplectic faces that one can tell just how far South Africa still has to travel. See, despite sitting in a province that has South Africa’s highest percentage of black population, Marble Hall is still very much a white enclave—acres of gleaming, pristine cereals and citrus plantations stretch as far as the eye can see, in what is also beef country.

It is easy to see why South Africa is so agriculturally productive, and why any sudden political change in structure would easily result in a Zimbabwe. Limpopo is also home to much of South Africa’s lucrative game hunting industry, in a province that also has its poorest population.  

South Africa’s black middle class, while still free-spirited, is running out of political happiness.

With the contrasts, is also easy to see why the ruling African National Congress (ANC) regularly has to contend with claims of betrayal during the transition to black rule—the economy in the rest of the country, as here, remains firmly in white hands.

The ruling party came to power with much goodwill on a platform of change and uplifting the Black masses, but it has squandered much of these, as what was once a stirring vision that inspired millions floundered at the altar of comfort, the political elite now much fattened at the expense of their constituents. 

As it is, an estimated 60% of South Africa’s wealth is owned by just 10% of its people, and the misplaced anger at this is often aimed at similarly befuddled targets—foreign nationals.

Everyday struggles

But it is in the sleepy nearby village of Matatadibeng, off the gleaming tarmac roads and well away from the glitzy cities, that is a more indicative of the amalgamation of everyday South African struggles. Here, huge tracts of black-owned land lies idle, overrun by thick bush with the odd farmhouse. 

The problem is that, unlike the plantations of Marble Hall, there is little capital to turn the land productive. And the potential is there—nearby is a plantation of unremarkable trees locally known as Moringa, but whose miracle-tree claims have taken the country by storm. While taking me on a tour, its owner, an eldery soft-spoken but modest gentleman, is still unable to conceal the fact that business out of them is good.

In the near distance is the solitary primary school, of the same name, with just the barest of facilities, while the nearest decent health facility is to be found tens of miles away. School happens to be out for the holiday, and any decent ground is playing host to  mobs of teenagers partying—a cocktail of skimpy dressing and under-age drinking.

Alcohol, South Africa’s scourge

Alcohol is the scourge of South Africa. While there is much  to admire in South Africa’s cultural consciousness and tight-knit families, social occasions here, as elsewhere, are a magnet for hordes of men who do not need a second invitation to imbibe all day long, accompanied by lusty drags on Van Rijn and Voucher cigarettes, and consistent snorts off Boxer tobacco.

Sects come in all colours in what is a very religious country, while a family dispute, often over property use, is never too far away. Yet the constant frustration is that this is obviously a country of rich resources. The locals here, deeply welcoming and ever-optimistic, evidently make much out of little. It is Africa’s famed resilience that is nothing short of inspiring. How long can they put up with the status quo? 

Restless middle class

But it is the country’s black middle class (a much debatable term here) and who can be seen tearing up the tarmac in fancy cars on their way to rural homes that they hope to develop for social anchor purposes, that suggest something is happening.

Conversations with them that often change to debates paint just how deep the disillusionment has spread: there is now talk of voting for an alternative to the ANC. And no, their much-sought after votes will not go to Mmusi Maimane’s Democratic Alliance (DA), but to Julius Malema.

Yes we know all about him: an irascible populist who preaches water and laps up the wine, and whose radical economic model, while attracting the headlines, has been lampooned as just unworkable. But many like the fact that his message, however clumsily packaged, tends to strike terror in the hearts of many who have grown just too comfortable.

In other words, it is not a vote for his Economic Freedom Fighters party, but a protest vote against the ANC. It is a growing groundswell of black support that may or may not burst the dam, but it is hard to shake off the feeling that South Africa’s “missed” revolution of 1994 may only have been delayed.

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