- By Joseph Warungu
- Letters from Africa Series, Nairobi
On November 9, two men stood before Kenyans to deliver highly anticipated speeches, separated by only a few hours and a few kilometers.
They were both live on television.
Both men are sworn Pan-Africanists and both defend the heart of a nation burdened by heavy economic burdens.
But that’s where the similarities end.
One man, President William Ruto, wore a formal blue suit.
The other man, South African opposition leader Julius Malema, was dressed in a black safari suit, with his usual red beret perched on his head.
While the president’s state of the nation address delivered with great fanfare in Parliament was greeted with somber and weary looks, every other sentence of Mr. Malema’s explosive speech was greeted with wild cheers from his audience during of 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 heated debates in Kenya. Mr Malema’s speech was rebroadcast by a number of Kenyan digital channels and excerpts of it were widely shared on WhatsApp.
Mr Malema’s decision to attack President Ruto on a number of issues, including failure to fulfill his election promises, has affected many Kenyans.
The South African spokesperson also condemned Mr Ruto for failing to challenge 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 to understand why Kenyans embraced a leader who broke a common African etiquette that a visitor should not speak ill of his host, one has to go back to the events of March this year.
“This is the day angry citizens from four African countries took to the streets simultaneously to fight against the high cost of living. The protests in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Tunisia were led by leaders from the opposition, including Julius Malema.”
Mr Ndekwe adds that Kenya was already facing periodic demonstrations led by opposition leader Raila Odinga, protesting what he saw as a stolen 2022 election.
“Many Kenyans, especially the younger generation, identified with Julius Malema who was fighting a similar cause to theirs. They saw it as a show of solidarity against oppressive or insensitive regimes.”
Professor PLO Lumumba, president of the new Pan-African Institute which 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 way that appeals to critical masses,” he told the BBC.
“Don’t forget that this is a very young continent,” he said, adding that Africa needs a younger generation of leaders.
Although Mr Ruto, 58, campaigned last year as a next generation candidate against opposition leader Raila Odinga, 78, Mr Malema, 42, is better placed to voice the concerns of this large cohort of young voters.
But even before the March protests in four countries, Mr. Malema was a well-known figure with a large following in Kenya, mainly because of his impassioned interventions in South Africa’s Parliament, where his economic freedom fighters are known to carry red jumpsuits, giving fiery speeches and sometimes disrupting the debates.
Compilations of his comments in Parliament are popular and circulate in Kenya. In the comments section of one such video last year, one person wrote: “I still can’t get enough of Hon Malema… I love you, ambassador of pure truth… The LOVE KENYA.”
So when Mr. Malema landed in Kenya, he found an audience waiting for him.
Mr Ndekwe says Mr Malema poses a challenge not only to President Ruto but also to his rivals.
“For some Kenyans, Malema symbolizes the opposition leader they don’t have and many draw comparisons to Raila Odinga. Malema is young, energetic, bold and fearless. He speaks his mind even though it may boring others. Young people don’t see this. these qualities in Raila.
“When the president’s state of the nation address simply repeated the same promises the government had made before, no one questioned them,” admits a Kenyan editor who did not wish to use his name.
“Malema has provided an alternative voice, lambasting the government. It’s a welcome departure from the usual rhetoric.”
Unsurprisingly, Kenya’s government reacted angrily to Mr Malema’s comments and Vice President Rigathi Gachagua gave him this advice: “We would like to call on visitors to respect the leaders of their host countries. We travel abroad and we do not insult the leaders of those countries. We do not intervene in their politics.
“This man who came here is all-knowing. In the afternoon he seemed to know more about Kenya than we do. I visited his own country in December and they ration electricity for seven hours; yet we let’s not talk about them because we respect them.”
The government is not the only one to react. Many ordinary Kenyans found his comments distasteful, saying a foreigner should not teach them how to manage their affairs. Others felt offended by his decision to deliver his critical speech on the same day as the president’s State of the Nation address.
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Given the many feathers he ruffled during a short visit, why did the organizers of the new Pan-African Institute invite Mr Malema to Kenya?
“The choice was defined by fundamental elements,” said Professor Lumumba, a well-known and deeply passionate Pan-Africanist.
“The first is that Malema has spoken and continues to speak boldly on issues that concern the African continent, including free trade in Africa, free movement of people within Africa and African empowerment. of their affairs.
“Malema in South Africa also represents a generation that says, ‘Even when you say we killed apartheid, apartheid is still alive and well’. And for me, that touches us. He is also courageous and says these things without fear.consequence.Many of us mince our words because we fear consequences.
So why does Professor Lumumba think so many Kenyans have embraced Mr Malema?
“There is a silent and critical majority of Kenyans who feel disappointed by what is happening and what is happening in the Kenyan political scene because Kenyans in the public space are generally hypocrites. They don’t say what they say. they think. It’s a sense in which Malema, as a visitor, has come 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 Africa’s agenda and doing it for themselves and starting to recognize that the ultimate decolonization, the ultimate freedom is economic freedom. “.
Despite many Kenyans’ support for Mr Malema, at home in South Africa he is a controversial figure who has been accused of stoking racial tensions.
He has been repeatedly accused of hate speech, and opinion polls show his EFF coming third nationally, with the support of around 13% of voters.
While the man in the red beret has left Kenya, the president in the blue suit has the difficult task of winning back those who seek solutions to their economic and political problems from the outside rather than from within.
Joseph Warungu is a media and communications trainer based in Nairobi