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Julius Malema: Why the South African politician touched a nerve in Kenya


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

They were both live on television.

Both men are sworn pan-Africanists and both were after the hearts of a nation weighed down 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 clad in a black safari suit, with his customary red beret perched on his head.

While the president’s State of the Nation Address delivered amid pomp and ceremony in parliament was received with sombre and weary looks, every other sentence of Mr Malema’s explosive speech was met with wild cheers 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 centre of much comparison and plenty of lively debate in Kenya. Mr Malema’s speech was rebroadcast by a number of Kenyan digital channels and clips of it were shared widely on WhatsApp.

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

The South African firebrand also condemned Mr Ruto for not challenging King Charles on colonialism during his recent visit to Kenya, as well as his support for Israel in the current conflict with Hamas.

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

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

Mr Ndekwe adds that Kenya was already experiencing periodic demonstrations led by opposition leader Raila Odinga, protesting against what he felt was a stolen 2022 election.

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

Prof PLO Lumumba, chair of the new Pan-African Institute that invited Mr Malema to Kenya, echoes Mr Ndekwe’s argument.

“Malema represents a younger generation of Africans who are now beginning to articulate Pan-African issues in a manner 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 Mr Ruto, 58, campaigned last year as the candidate of the next generation against 78-year-old opposition leader Raila Odinga, at 42 Mr Malema is better placed to articulate the concerns of that large cohort of young voters.

But even before the four-country demonstrations in March, Mr Malema was a well-known figure with a sizeable following in Kenya, mainly arising from his heated contributions in the South African parliament, where his Economic Freedom Fighters are known for wearing red overalls, giving fiery speeches and occasionally disrupting proceedings.

Compilations of his comments in parliament are popular and have been doing the rounds 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.”

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

Mr Ndekwe says that Mr Malema represents a challenge not just for President Ruto but also for his rivals.

“For some Kenyans, Malema symbolises the opposition leader they do not have and many make comparisons with Raila Odinga. Malema is young, energetic, bold and fearless. He speaks his mind even though it may annoy others. The young people don’t see these qualities in Raila.”

“When the president’s State of the Nation Address merely repeated the same promises the government has made before, no-one questioned it,” agrees one senior editor in Kenya who did not want to use his name.

“Malema gave an alternative voice, castigating the government. It’s a welcome break from the usual talk.”

Unsurprisingly, Kenya’s government has reacted angrily to Mr Malema’s comments and Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua has given him this advice: “We’d like to appeal to visitors to respect the leaders of their host countries. We travel overseas and we don’t insult the leaders of those countries. We don’t interfere with their politics.

“This man who came here is all-knowing. By the afternoon he seemed to know more about Kenya than us. I visited his own country in December and they ration electricity for seven hours; yet we don’t discuss this because we respect them.”

The government is not alone in its reaction. Many ordinary Kenyans have found his comments distasteful, saying a foreigner should not teach them how to run their affairs. Others felt offended with his decision to give his critical speech on the same day as the president’s State of the Nation Address.

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