Julius Malema: Why the South African politician struck a chord in Kenya

  • By José Warungu
  • Letter from Africa Series, Nairobi

On November 9, two men stood before Kenyans to deliver long-awaited speeches, just a few hours and a few kilometers apart.

Both were live on television.

Both men are sworn Pan-Africanists and both sought the hearts of a nation burdened by heavy economic burdens.

But that’s where the similarities ended.

One man, President William Ruto, wore a formal blue suit.

The other man, South African opposition leader Julius Malema, was wearing a black safari suit and his usual red beret on his head.

While the president’s state of the nation address delivered amid pomp and ceremony in parliament was met with somber and weary stares, every other sentence of Mr Malema’s explosive speech was met with wild applause from his audience during the launch of the Pan-African Institute at a Kenyan University.

Since that day, the two men and their speeches have been the center of many comparisons and lively debates in Kenya. Mr Malema’s speech was broadcast on several Kenyan digital channels and clips of it were widely shared on WhatsApp.

Mr Malema’s decision to attack President Ruto over a number of issues, including his failure to deliver on his election promises, struck a chord with many Kenyans.

The South African firebrand also condemned Ruto for not challenging King Charles on colonialism during his recent visit to Kenya.

Media analyst Elvis Ndekwe says to understand why Kenyans embraced a leader who broke a common African etiquette that dictates that a visitor should not speak ill of his host, one must go back to the events of March this year.

“This was the day angry citizens from four African countries took to the streets in simultaneous demonstrations to fight the high cost of living. Protests in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Tunisia were led by opposition leaders, including Julius Malema”.

Ndekwe adds that Kenya was already experiencing regular demonstrations led by opposition leader Raila Odinga, protesting what he considered a stolen 2022 election.

“Many Kenyans, especially the younger generation, identified with Julius Malema, who was fighting for a cause similar to their own. They saw it as a show of solidarity against oppressive or insensitive regimes.”

Image source, fake images


This year there have been several protests against price and tax increases in Kenya

The PLO’s Professor Lumumba, president of the new Pan African Institute that invited Malema to Kenya, echoes Ndekwe’s argument.

“Malema represents a younger generation of Africans who are now beginning to articulate pan-African issues in a way that appeals to critical masses,” he told the BBC.

“Remember, this is a very young continent,” he said, adding that Africa needed a younger generation of leaders.

Although Ruto, 58, campaigned last year as a next generation candidate against opposition leader Raila Odinga, 78, Malema, 42, is better positioned to articulate the concerns of that large cohort of young voters. .

But even before the March protests in four countries, Malema was a well-known figure with a sizable following in Kenya, mainly due to his heated contributions in the South African parliament, where his Economic Freedom Fighters are known for wearing jumpsuits. reds. making impassioned speeches and occasionally interrupting proceedings.

Compilations of his remarks in parliament are popular and have been circulating in Kenya. In the comments section of one such video last year, one person wrote: “Still can’t get enough of Hon Malema…love you ambassador of pure truth…LOVE FROM KENYA.”

So when Malema landed in Kenya, he found an audience waiting for him.

Ndekwe says Malema represents a challenge not only to President Ruto but also to his rivals.

“For some Kenyans, Malema symbolizes the opposition leader they do not have and many draw comparisons with Raila Odinga. Malema is young, energetic, bold and brave. He speaks his mind even if it may upset others. Young people do not see these qualities in Raila.”

“When the president’s State of the Union address simply repeated the same promises the government had made before, no one questioned it,” agrees a senior editor in Kenya who did not want to use his name.

“Malema gave an alternative voice, punishing the government. It is a welcome break from the usual conversations.”

Unsurprisingly, the Kenyan government reacted angrily to Mr Malema’s comments, with Vice President Rigathi Gachagua giving him this advice: “We would like to ask visitors to respect the leaders of their host countries. We travel abroad and do not We insult the leaders of those countries and do not interfere in their policies.

“This man who came here knows everything. In the afternoon he seemed to know more about Kenya than we do. I visited his own country in December and they rationed electricity for seven hours; yet we do not discuss this because we respect them. “

The government is not alone in its reaction. Many ordinary Kenyans have found his comments distasteful, saying that a foreigner should not teach them how to manage their affairs. Others were offended by his decision to deliver the speech critical of him on the same day as the president’s State of the Union address.

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Given the many upsets he has irritated in one brief visit, why did the organizers of the new Pan African Institute invite Mr Malema to Kenya?

“The election was defined by some fundamental things,” said Professor Lumumba, a well-known and deeply passionate Pan-Africanist.

“One is that Malema has spoken and continues to speak boldly on issues of concern to the African continent, including unimpeded trade in Africa, the free movement of people within Africa and Africans taking charge of their own affairs.

“Malema in South Africa also represents a generation that says: ‘Even when you say we have killed apartheid, apartheid is still alive and well.’ And that to me resonates with us. He is also brave and says these things without fear of consequence. Many of us beat around the bush because we fear the consequences.


William Ruto says tax increases have been necessary because of debts he inherited when he came to power last year

So why does Professor Lumumba think so many Kenyans embraced Malema?

“There is a silent and critical majority of Kenyans who feel disappointed by what is happening and what has been happening in the Kenyan political sphere, because Kenyans in the public sphere are generally hypocritical. They don’t say what they want to say. So There is a sense in which Malema, as a visitor, came and said the things that we want to say, but we don’t want to say them.”

And what did Malema himself think of his visit? He told Professor Lumumba: “I am very happy to have a group of Kenyans, and by extension Africans, who are starting to embrace the Africa agenda and do it for themselves and starting to recognize that ultimate decolonization, ultimate freedom is economic freedom.”

Although Malema is embraced by many Kenyans, he is a controversial figure in South Africa who has faced accusations of stirring up racial tensions.

He has been repeatedly accused of hate speech, and opinion polls show his EFF running a distant third nationally, with the support of around 13% of voters.

Once the man in the red beret has left Kenya, the blue-clad president has the difficult task of winning back those who seek solutions to their economic and political problems from outside, rather than from within.

Joseph Warungu is a media and communication trainer based in Nairobi.

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