Raila and Malema: Two opposition leaders of a kind in Africa

Thursday March 30 2023
Julius Malema (left) and Kenya’s Raila Odinga

Kenya’s Raila Odinga (left) South Africa’s Julius Malema. The two organised a demonstration against their governments on the same day on March 20, 2023 and for virtually the same reasons. PHOTOS | EVANS HABIL | NMG & SUMAYA HISHAM | POOL | AFP


Two events that took place almost 4,000 kilometres apart on the same continent on the same day and for virtually the same reasons must have galvanised the world’s attention, giving conspiracy theorists a field day.

In Kenya, veteran politician Raila Odinga organised a demonstration against the rising cost of living, alleged stolen elections and the proposed reconstitution of the electoral commission without the input of all political stakeholders.

Whether the demonstrations were successful depends on whom you asked. However, one thing was clear; they were certainly disruptive.

Leader of Kenya’s opposition Raila Odinga

Leader of Kenya’s opposition coalition Azimio la Umoja Raila Odinga speaks to supporters during a mass rally on March 20, 2023. PHOTO | YASUYOSHI CHIBA | AFP

In South Africa, protest demonstrations were also held, organised by Julius Malema, a man who has for a long time been a gadfly on the flanks of the ruling Africa National Congress and entrenched economic elite in one of the continent’s most unequal societies, in what was dubbed a ‘national shutdown’.

Again, it was hard to tell just what impact the agitation will have on the common people of that land, but it certainly cannot be ignored. Nor can Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters party be wished away, for he has proved to be a consummate revolutionary whose demands are anathema to the establishment.


What these two men have in common is that they have proved they do not compromise in their political convictions, and they are not afraid to vent them to anyone who would listen, and even to those whose ears are deliberately closed. Nor do they fear to offend the powers-that-be even if this means rattling them out of their comfort zones.

South African opposition leader Julius Malema

South African opposition leader Julius Malema is removed from the Cape Town City Hall during President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address on February 9, 2023. PHOTO | ESA ALEXANDER | POOL | AFP

Of the two men, Odinga is a veteran of the struggle and he has the scars to show for it, while Malema is a relative “newbie” who started his activities against the apartheid regime by joining the ANC at the tender age of nine, when most of his countrymen and women were still sucking thumbs.

Read: How politicians planned Kenyatta farm attack

Although there is no record of Odinga fighting colonialism, probably because he was relatively young, a role his father took up with relish, it is clear that politics was always in his blood.

One does not have to agree with his brand of politics to recognise that he has turned out to be an institution, almost a force of nature that cannot be denied and must, instead, be accommodated in one way or the other.

As three past presidents have discovered, no one can expect to rule this country with tranquility unless Odinga’s views are taken into account, for he will impose them on the rulers anyway.


Members of the the Economic Freedom Fighters gather at Church Square in Pretoria, South Africa on March 20, 2023 during a "national shut-down" called by their party to bring the country to a halt. PHOTO | AFP

Despite a long struggle, Odinga has never been accorded a chance to run the affairs of this country as president, and his loyal followers believe he has been rigged out multiple times in his long political career. Yet, he will not give up. History will probably be much kinder to him, for it is still too early to write his political epitaph.

 Indeed, he does not show any signs of hanging up his boots despite his advancing age. What no one should ever try to do is to ignore him; those who have attempted to do so have eventually come to realise their folly, sometimes at a high cost.

How do you categorise a man who, after every five years in the past two-and-a-half decades, has carried half the country’s voting public with him but never won the ultimate prize? It is unfortunate that ethnic chauvinism has regularly conspired to deny him the presidency. Until Kenyans change the way they elect their leaders, they will always have to settle for people who are unfit to tie his shoelaces.

Odinga has always professed to fight for the underdog, which endears him to millions, but since he has never been entrusted with the power to shape the country’s destiny, Kenyans will probably never know what he is capable of. However, a couple of events in his life may give a clue as the kind of politician Odinga is, for his political journey has been quite eventful.

Kenya’s Azimio La Umoja leaders

Kenya’s Azimio La Umoja leaders on March 28, 2023 when they visited the Kenyatta family-owned farm which was raided by goons. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

ReadDark Monday: Stop this madness!

Not only has he vied for the presidency five times and allegedly lost five times, he has also sacrificed a great deal of his person[1]al liberties over his views which have almost always diverged from those of political rivals and their minions.

One thing you can say about him is that he has never shied away from speaking truth to power, nor is he likely to stop. Therefore, when a group of neophyte politicians suffering from an exaggerated sense of hubris call a press conference to urge the Inspector-General of Police to arrest Odinga for leading demonstrations, they do not seem to know what they are saying.

After all, he has been there and done that in his long career, and he is not likely to be fazed by demands whose only outcome can be to plunge this country into chaos greater than any demonstration can probably cause.

Lest the MPs have forgotten, in his time, Odinga has been to hell and back.

People run for cover after police threw tear gas

People run for cover after police threw tear gas at protestors in Nairobi, Kenya on January 20, 2023. Opposition leader Raila Odinga had called the protests to pressure the government to deal with the rising cost of living. PHOTO | WILFRED NYANGARESI | NMG

In 1982, he was jailed for six years for his alleged role in that year’s abortive coup against the intolerant Kanu juggernaut, and later that year, detained for seven months.

In 1990, he joined Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia in detention, where he languished for 11 months, after which he fled to Norway, fearing assassination. This, then, is not the kind of person to threaten with arrest. Quite obviously, a way will have to be found to seek a consensus with the man otherwise he will continue to make this country ungovernable.

As for Malema, here is a man with very impressive credentials as a revolutionary, pan-Africanist, and supreme agitator for the economic emancipation of his fellow black Africans.

Like Odinga, he has his eyes firmly fixed on the presidency of his extremely wealthy motherland, and luckily for him, at 45 years of age, time is on his side. He has been quoted as saying during a TV interview that “they can call you all kinds of names and hurl insults, but as long as you have an appointment with the future, you don’t care what anyone says”.

Those are certainly not the sentiments of a modest man. He is a driven man, a rabble-rouser with brains, and a master tactician who does not give quarter within Parliament or without.

His arguments are impeccable. South Africa is a wealthy country with huge swathes of cultivable land but 80 per cent it is owned by 10 per cent of white farmers while 80 per cent of the population is black. So he wants the government to seize this land without compensation and re-distribute it.

He also wants the government to take over the mines and give shares to the miners themselves. While political apartheid was de-legalised, he argues, economic apartheid persists.

What African can argue with such noble ideas? Who else, indeed, can dare tell his people that the reason why they are poor is not because fellow Africans from other countries have taken their jobs – resulting in the periodic orgies of xenophobia – except Malema, who admits that he risks losing votes over his unpopular ‘open border’ views but doesn’t give a hoot?

This is a brave man, a man who will change the country’s destiny if they let him live long enough.

He is aware of the danger he is in, but characteristically, he doesn’t care.