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The Verbal Artistry of Julius Malema

The Verbal Artistry of Julius Malema
From the Anthro News Blog Language and Culture Column.

Guest Columnist
Steven P. Black

Steven P. Black, Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University

In November of 2011, political youth leader Julius Malema was suspended from the ruling party of South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC, once a primary force of organized resistance to the racist and oppressive governance known as Apartheid, refashioned itself with the guidance of Nelson Mandela into a party for non-racial government. Though the ANC is officially committed to non-racial democracy, not all of the party’s prominent members share the color-blind perspective, especially when it comes to finding blame for current social ills like incredibly high crime rates, HIV infection, poverty and inequality. Julius Malema, a vocal opponent of white liberalism in South Africa, was found guilty of bringing the ANC into disrepute. [ ]. This ruling was significant, given that in previous years Malema was touted by the current South African president Jacob Zuma and other ANC leaders as the future leader of South Africa.

The post-apartheid constitution recognizes eleven official languages: Afrikaans (the 16th century Dutch derived language most associated with apartheid), English, and nine indigenous languages including IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, Setswana, Sesotho, and Northern Sesotho. Malema grew up speaking a variety of Northern Sesotho called Pedi but likely had some or even a great deal of exposure to English and Afrikaans in his schooling and possibly at home. In present day South Africa, English is a lingua franca spoken by politicians, civil servants and is seen as the language of international economic development. In everyday life, many black South Africans speak multiple indigenous languages, English, and Afrikaans often codeswitching between two or three languages or speaking a variety called Flaitaal or Tsotsitaal—a variety referred to in linguistics as a “creole” language for its combination of these multiple indigenous and European language varieties. Malema, like other politicians, most often speaks publicly in English, but sometimes uses reference to his “home language” (in local parlance) to make a point about supposedly “traditional” African values. For instance, when the biological sex of a world champion black South African sprinter was in doubt, Malema responded, “Hermaphrodite? What is that? Somebody tell me, what is Hermaphrodite in Pedi? There’s no such thing, hermaphrodite, in Pedi.”

Malema is notable for his divisive rhetoric in English that singles out white South Africans as the cause of the majority of the nations ills. Malema’s words are also derogatory towards other non-black racial groups (especially Indian South Africans) and towards women. A less commented upon element of Malema’s work is the verbal artistry with which he has been able to concentrate his vehemence into quotable sound bytes.

“‘Racism is the legacy of De Klerk. Unemployment is the legacy of De Klerk. Shortage of houses is the legacy of De Klerk. De Klerk must never be compared with Mandela,’ in January 2011 urging people not to credit South Africa’s last white ruler, FW de Klerk, for releasing Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990.”

This statement is remarkable in its ability to communicate a complex affective and epistemic stance in a compact, fluid form. Here he connects De Klerk to racism, unemployment, and housing shortages. The use of the word “legacy” indicates a presupposition, shared and assumed but never spoken, that De Klerk is to be associated with Apartheid itself and not with the end of Apartheid. Scholars of verbal art will recognize the parallelism of Malema’s words. The phrase, “is the legacy of De Klerk” is a frame, while “ ‘racism’, ‘unemployment’, and ‘shortage of houses’ are the foci of parallel syntactic constructions. It seems fair to call this verbal art—Malema performs in front of an audience, bears heightened responsibility for his talk, and is employing parallelism—noted by linguist Roman Jakobson as a key linguistic form by which verbal art can be distinguished from everyday speech.

I had initially thought that looking at the actual videos from which this and other quotes were taken would demonstrate the ways that media recontextualization cleaned up a speech full of pauses, corrections, and perhaps less eloquent speaking. Watching Malema speak, though, I was struck by the force and charisma with which he crafted his words. Still, I will note that, as always, media recontextualization of Malema’s words involved a great deal of erasure. For instance, here is a quote from the recording linked above:

“We have decided to forgive De Klerk, but we don’t forget what he, Botha or Verwoerd and many others did to the people of South Africa.”

This does not negate the many ways in which Malema has indeed brought the ANC into “disrepute” through his oppositional, divisive and prejudiced speeches, but it does highlight an instance where he may have attempted to soften the rhetorical force of this talk. It may be that Malema is a victim of his own verbal artistry. These abilities have helped him to galvanize support among young black South Africans, especially those who feel that the country has not come far enough in its seventeen years of legislated equality. However, his verbal virtuosity coupled with his political platform has also incited contempt and anger among many white South Africans. Though the ANC does not depend on the votes of white South Africans, the country does depend on the continued financial participation of some of its most wealthy citizens as well as investment and aid from Europe and the United States. This has been an ongoing concern of the ANC since taking power (in contrast to South Africa’s much maligned and bankrupt neighbor to the north, Zimbabwe). In the end, since the progressive constitution does not allow the ANC to silence Malema, the organization is attempting to do the next best thing—to disavow any part in the co-authoring of his talk.

Editors of Language and Culture Column: Leila Monaghan, leila.monaghan (at); Jacqueline Messing, jmessing (at); Richard Senghas, richard.senghas (at)

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