AS THE South African Revenue Service closes in on Julius Malema, I find myself wondering whether to think of him as the villain of his story or its victim.
While he appears to be keeping his chin up as his world collapses around him, Malema must be quite stunned by the speed of his fall from ANC grace.
Where just months ago he was on the A-list of every empowered black hostess, now, as he says himself, he can barely get anyone to take his calls.
The smart cars are gone, the armed bodyguards are gone, his properties have been attached as security for a reported tax debt of R16-million and the criminal case against him seems to be gaining momentum as former friends move to save their own skins.
It will be hard for some of us not to submit to schadenfreude after years of his gross arrogance and his absurd insistence that all the bling he attached to himself was honestly acquired from his modest salary as the ANC Youth League’s president – or as unconditional gifts from the dear friends who have now abandoned him in such numbers.
It does not need a rocket scientist to calculate that, absent of any tax rebate at all, that tax debt implies a pre-tax income of R40-million. That is a lot of unconditional generosity to explain away.
The way Malema advocated dangerous policies and threatened even revered ANC veterans who refused to toe his line was sickening to many who could not understand why the party let him get away with it, even when the cost in lost international investment became impossible to ignore.
As it turns out, however, Malema was no more than the classic useful idiot of big-league politics who took himself more seriously than anyone around him.
Even knowing the limits of his role, however, his masters stuck with him when he began to pronounce on issues from international relations to job creation without checking with them.
Nor did they repudiate his presidential ambitions. But while he came to believe that he was the puppet master, he never quite managed to escape the strings.
In her book, An Inconvenient Youth, Fiona Forde tells the story of a precocious township urchin who inveigled himself into the local structures of the ANC and worked his way up through its ranks until, not entirely honestly, he won control of the party’s youth league.
It is a remarkable story about a boy with no prospects who seized the one opportunity that came his way and squeezed it for everything he could.
His early rise caught the tail end of a period in which the ANC needed to break before it could build. His robust style and vigorous oratory suited that stage of the transformation from white rule to democratic control of the state and its institutions. No one asked him to do anything really constructive – to make anything. That wasn’t his role.
When he became the fixer who could put tenderpreneurs in touch with decision-makers controlling state and provincial chequebooks, no one held him to account for the quality of the work he procured on behalf of state structures because it was his job to be an agent of change.
When companies which he allegedly helped to win contracts built roads that quickly collapsed, no one from government or the ANC knocked on his door looking for an explanation.
He was allowed, like the useful idiot he was, to believe he was playing the game as it was supposed to be played.
Probably because of his lack of political experience, Malema made the fatal mistake of backing a doomed challenge to the incumbent party elite. He had been given the trappings of power – the money, cars and connections – and allowed himself to believe that real power had come with them.
He believed wrongly that he had graduated from tender-fixer to kingmaker and stopped listening to his counsellors.
That is when the puppet-master finally cut the strings that Malema had sought himself to untie and the puppet collapsed in a heap, unable to stand, unable to dance and unable anymore to point the way to mountains of wealth.
Good riddance, one might say, and rightly so. We are better off without a fool muddying the waters of economic planning and international relations.
And perhaps it was a lucky escape for he might have been closer than we knew to the Pinocchio moment when the puppet takes on a life of its own
But the ANC leaders who pulled his strings must have known what they were doing when they encouraged his early exploits. The party had many opportunities to take stock of their creation and crush his inappropriate ambitions.
Yet nothing was done for far too long. Malema was useful to a faction in his runaway role and his masters were happy to let him take the risks.
Like the naive first generation MPs who got caught up in the travelgate fraud at parliament, Malema did what he thought everyone was doing, but he lost his sense of perspective and, as the worst of the cheating MPs did, he went too far even for his masters.
Now, with his political cover stripped away, it is even possible the charges against him could lead to prison time.
Perhaps, now that he has been exposed as the wooden-headed puppet he is, the ANC owes Malema an apology.
He was cruelly used by a faction who thought his bluster useful to them and who, as recent events show, promise him no loyalty.
It is unlikely, should it come to that, that parliament’s speaker or anyone of equivalent rank will go with him as Baleka Mbete did for Tony Yengeni. He is more likely to take that walk alone.
Julius Malema’s tale should caution those who believe there is such an easy path to great wealth and power.
For the rest of us, it should be a reminder of the danger of tolerating opportunistic political populism. Malema might not have made it to the top as he expected, but there are plenty of examples of others a bit like him who did.
Benito Mussolini, Idi Amin, Jean-Bedel Bokassa and, though not all would lump him in the group, Muammar Gaddafi, show where things can go when a political puppet gets a life of its own.
- Brendan Boyle is the editor of the Daily Dispatch