Not an ounce of gonzo puffery in Fiona’s Juju book

An Inconvenient Youth by Fiona Forde, Picador Africa, 2011.

Early in Fiona Forde’s An Inconvenient Youth, the author asks her subject, the irascible Julius Malema, what happened to his infamous Breitling watch:

The watch, which was from the exclusive ‘Breitling for Bentley range’, met its demise late in 2009 . . . It happened one afternoon when he was spending some time with his son, his only child, at his home in Polokwane. Ratanang was a big fan of Ben 10, the American animation series . . . and to three-year old Ratanang, Dad’s flashy Breitling looked just like Ben’s extraordinary watch.

“Can I play with it?” He asked.

“You can,” his father answered as he unstrapped the wristwatch and handed it to the child. Ratanang began to fiddle with the dials of the watch, just as Ben does. He imagined himself programming it with the DNA of the alien he was about to transform into, just as Ben would have done. Then, as he had seen Ben do a thousand times, he swiftly raised his little arm upwards . . . and that’s when the big Breitling slid off his small wrist and soared into the air before falling flat on the floor seconds later. With the thud, the Breitling signature gold wings became detached from the top of the face of the watch and were left swivelling at the bottom beneath the glass. The child could still hear the tick-tock of the watch and he could see that the second hand was still in motion, but the gold wings were out of place. And one look at his father told him he had done something terribly wrong. He continued to look at him, but he had no words to match his father’s stare. So the pair just looked at one another in silence . . . in one small innocent act the young boy had damaged one of his father’s most distinguished symbols of status and wealth. And that was the end of the Breitling Bentley (8-9).

As personal moments go, the anecdote, told to Forde by Malema himself as they sat under a hot Venezuela sun, is a touching one. One could read it as the sort of “revealing” anecdote strategically deployed by the author as a means of semaphoring their closeness to the subject – didactically displaying their authority as wielder of the tale – but in Forde’s book, it comes across as a well-struck note from a writer well-tuned to the task of capturing the complexities of her subject. Forde’s book is a personal account of her attempt to understand Malema, who appears surprisingly modest and self-effacing in the one-on-one moments that pepper the book.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this work is that the position of its author doesn’t take centre-stage. It could so easily have been a different sort of work, the sort of gonzo journalistic puffery where the author’s dazzling turns of phrase and witty pop-analysis distract one from the subject at hand – Suresh Roberts’ heavy-handed efforts on Thabo Mbeki come vividly to mind. But it isn’t that sort of book: perhaps because Forde isn’t an academic, her book avoids the taint of the biographer’s knowing smirk. Instead, Forde has put together an account at once complex and straightforward, humorous and serious, the whole thing underscored by Forde’s fine writing voice.

That Julius Malema represents one of the profound seismic disturbances in the narrative of South Africa’s political upheaval wouldn’t be disputed by any of the many cultural commentators who have weighed in on the subject of the ANC scion. With Malema’s political future currently uncertain, this intriguing account of the man, rendered in a voice at once familiar and impartial, is perhaps all the more topical. An Inconvenient Youth enlarges our sense of the man at its centre, the angry, complex figure who “has grown to become a grave inconvenience, not only to the ANC, but also, due to his style of politics, to South Africa’s fledgling democracy”. And rather than simply crafting the usual paradox-theory that seems to be the chosen praxis for accessing confusing public figures – “that is what it looks like to you, but in reality what is going on is this” – Forde turns her authorial eye on the reader too – what does our fascination with Julius reveal about us and our fears? An Inconvenient Youth positions itself as a far better starting point for apprehending the phenomenon that is Malema, than the interminable rantings and ravings served up by the media in the guise of news.

This seems to be the animating impulse behind the work. Forde demonstrates the fallacy behind much of the mainstream media’s construction of Julius Malema as the boorish Idi Amin bogey-man. She reconstructs the infamous scene in which Malema ejected an impertinent BBC reporter from Luthuli House, deconstructing the moment in a cinematic mise en scène that emphasises the preposterous, larger-than-life nature of Malema’s utterances.

It seems to be a popular truth that if you say something for long enough, reasonable numbers will submit to what may merely be a de facto consensus. In the case of Julius Malema, Forde demonstrates that criticisms of the former’s intelligence invariably have as much to do with socially embedded prejudices and cultural myopia as justifiable critique. Reading An Inconvenient Youth, one is led to accept the reality that when opinions are so polluted, the holders of those opinions cannot engage an objective assessment, instead resorting to a dismissal of Malema that underestimates the potency of his rhetoric.

An Inconvenient Youth tries, in the spirit of open debate, to widen what we think we know about this enigmatic figure. Along the way, Forde pinpoints the alternating gusts of good and bad that whirl around Malema: he is, Forde says, both generous beyond measure and extremely ruthless where the furthering of his own interests is concerned. The argument is not particularly new, but it seems to come from a different place with Forde: there is no hint of schadenfreude in the author’s discussion of Malema’s setbacks: she doesn’t gloat at the prospect (unrealized as the book went to print) that Malema might be destined to lose his power and privilege.

This is not to say that Forde does not apply the weight of her criticism to Malema: during the course of her analysis, she constructs a picture of the socio-cultural perversity of which Malema is an inextricable part. Forde’s thesis is broadly that Malema is guilty of the tragic hero’s hubris: potentially noble, the brave protagonist blusters his way into a point of irretrievable downfall. And if Julius Malema’s point of downfall was precariously suspended (and continues to be, even with recent events), then that precariousness is itself reflective of larger social issues proliferating on our country’s socio-political landscape.

Of course, this state of precarity is by now a well-trafficked field, and anyone vaguely familiar with the topic will await the inevitable arrival of Achille Mbembe, whose formulations on the Bakhtinian carnivalesque are rather extraneous flourishes which make overly explicit what Forde’s argument already suggests. And while gripes are being tallied, there are annoying proofreading gaffes – “teagal” for Malema’s original “tea girl”, and although it is perhaps uncharitable to expect the layperson to be aware that Audi has produced neither an “Audi 3 series” (that’s a BMW) or a 3.8-litre A3, the point is that an error-strewn text is a frustration to the pleasure of reading: greater care ought to be taken.

Perhaps a bigger crime is that the centre portion of the work seems to lack the light, sure touch the sleuthing reporter brings to other sections of the work. In a wearisomely detailed reconstruction of the ANC’s formative decades, Forde attempts to contextualise Malema’s claim that his actions are drawn from the Movement’s long history of youth activism:

‘You have to go back, you have to go very far back in the history of the ANC if you want to understand what is happening today,’ Joe Matthews argued. . . Julius Malema was also going back in time and re-interpreting the party’s past so that he could reshape its present and determine its future.

The author draws on a large cast of actors and events to fill in her exposition on the ANC’s history, but it reads rather like a heavy-handed History assignment, and is tough going indeed. Levity arrives, thankfully, in Forde’s interpretation of this historical data, in which she is endeavouring to show how the present ANC is haunted by its ideological dream of a new South Africa for all, a dream which is a still-born after-image of the liberation movement always hovering over its ontic presence as a political party in the neo-liberal world, a party complicit with the global status quo. In this regard, Forde’s analysis shows that Malema is more than just the scandalous malcontent. Rather, while always already complicit in the same system he criticises, he is both the symptom and affirmation of the incumbent party’s failures. About this positioning, she writes: “Malema is exploiting the problem that race and racism have never been fully addressed in South Africa.”

Forde’s book bristles with well-phrased quotables, the sort of punchy statements that can be prattled off without too much bother. The reader’s attention is kept by the evocative re-enactments, the responsive and reflective arguments posed with lucid eloquence. It craftily delivers political commentary and historical analysis without a lecturing know-it-all tone. She rakes through Malema’s past and listens attentively to those who knew him in his younger days. Behind this, one senses a nagging impulse on the author’s part to identify her subject’s idée fixe. The logic seems to be that if the rules of the inexplicable game can be revealed, then it will be less terrifyingly unknowable.

Of course, Malema is a South African mystery, and Forde tries to get at why that is the case. Why does Julius, and the ruling party behind him, have such a malleable ethics? What would happen if he came to power? What does one do with the brute fact of Malema’s appeal? The striking thing about Malema, in the eyes of the mind that tries to decipher Malema’s crowd-appeal, is that the banality of his pronouncements is not an impediment to his success. On the contrary, his brash pronouncements on the need for nationalisation and more widespread transformation seem to be a diversion, an endgame in which he and the other players manoeuvre for advantage, doing and saying whatever is necessary to grant them a longer stay at the top.

The reader senses Forde’s uneasiness with this Janus-faced dualism, a dualism that is part and parcel of modern political culture. Perhaps it is an uneasiness rooted in the sense that our politicians ought to pass some moral – or if not moral, then certainly ethical – scrutiny. In her analysis, the ANC, with Julius Malema as its avatar, has committed to hanging onto its position as the architects of a rather profitable oligarchy, come what may. To this vexed question, one is tempted to respond that Malema’s position is surely nothing if not the Machiavellian posture of doing whatever is necessary to achieve one’s ends – a posture we often adopt in our daily decisions. Indeed, most of Malema’s more outrageous propositions – nationalisation, say – are distressingly unthinkable except within the framework of a supra-empirical belief in the triumph of the personal Will behind the oligarchic enterprise.

It is to attack, pace JM Coetzee in Diary of a Bad Year, the arrogance of this oligarchy – Forde terms it a “managed democracy” – that is the task of An Inconvenient Youth. The reader will judge whether it has been successful, but I would argue that it comes closer than anything written recently has managed to do. It is fairly easy to predict that the future will be unpredictable, but less so to theorise ways of approaching the present. An Inconvenient Youth proceeds lightly through the scenes, objects, stories and incidents that make up Julius Malema’s existence in society, in ways that emphasise the odd mix of the principled and the obscene that accrues to the party that rules this country. As Forde demonstrates, it is not a question of being for or against Julius Malema, but rather of being aware of the risks involved in our journey through this epochal moment.

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Leonski says:

Well, as an Audi driver myself, who recently switched from an old Dolphin-shaped BMW 318, I can only say that the move is laden with self-consciousness and semiotic awareness. My Audi A4 1.8T is cleaner, Vorsprung durch Technik, ek se, but BMW is raw sex bravado, or a gruffer growl of satisfaction, more Flats. Audi is kind’ve Stellenbosch. See what I mean?

Annel says:

I’ve just finished reading this book and found it very insightful. Forde offers a lucid and nuanced reading of Malema and his political significance.

I do want to pick up on your point about the editing oversight re. the model of car, though. I’m a layperson who would not have known the difference if you had not pointed it out. However, now that you have pointed it out, a perplexing question presents itself.

What Forde foregrounds for the reader is Malema’s preoccupation with labels and fashion. She makes it clear that these things are important to Malema through a series of anecdotes that underscore his love of very particular status symbols.

Thus, to misidentify an Audi for a BMW seems a bit like misidentifying the Breitling for a Rolex. The difference is surely important to Malema, who, as Forde herself points out, has built his image on very particular brands and models.

I guess what bothers me now is that, because Malema is so closely associated with what he wears and, by extension, presumably by what he drives, the editorial oversight takes on a more problematic dimension than it normally would. If the Breitling signifies in a particular way, so too, presumably, would the Audi (or BMW) model that he drives. To get this wrong is to misread a particular aspect of what Malema is signifying with his car.

In your review of Siphiso Mzobe’s “Young Blood” on this site (19 Aug 2011), you make the following point about the the predilection for fast cars among the young men in that novel:

“The other boy-men he associates with share Sipho’s love of fast cars, in a world where aspiration has a lot to do with what one drives. The cars are almost characters in this play of ideas: a “BMW 740i” here, a “BMW 325i” there, and still another “BMW 535i” later. It could easily just be cold journalism, a sign that the author has researched his field thoroughly and methodically. But under Mzobe’s pen the life-enlarging potential of these objects comes alive. For these marginal figures, the talent needed to obtain such cars (by force or cunning) and the skill required to drive them quickly is an affirmation that they too wield some power in society.”

It seems to me that the “morphing” of Malema’s Audis into BMWs in Forde’s account is a sign of the grip that BMW has on the South African imaginary, which you identify in your Mzobe review.

What does it mean to reject BMW for Audi?

How does this shift feature in the current “play of ideas” in South Africa?