The media caricature of Hugo Chávez

A BBC interview with Julius Malema, a South African political leader and acolyte of Chavez, is exhibition 1,000,003 mainstream media framing of the late Venezuelan president.

Hugo Chávez Frías, President of Venezuela, speaking at the United Nations, 2009. UN Photo via Flickr CC.

The mainstream media has been in overdrive working lockstep to uphold their ridiculous caricature of Hugo Chávez. The campaign has led to some pretty desperate and shallow displays of journalism. There’s the AP reporter who reported that Hugo Chávez wasted his country’s money on healthcare when he could have built gigantic skyscrapers. Then there’s the rest.

The venerable BBC is a representative of what passes as mainstream coverage of Chávez’s passing. For its “Africa Today” podcast on Thursday (listen from 7:52 mark) who did the BBC call upon for an African perspective on the death of Chávez, whom the broadcaster habitually disparages, and misrepresents? Not one of the manifold African heads of state or prominent activists who have issued heartfelt, glowing tributes over the past few days (for example, Ghana’s President John Mahama), but former African National Congress Youth League of South Africa president Julius Malema, another favorite target of the BBC’s disdain and disapproval.

Introducing the short segment, the BBC interviewer Esau Williams proclaims that, like Chávez, Malema is “…another politician who divides opinion.” Clearly, it is reasonable to ask, is there any politician who does not divide opinion? Is that not the whole point of the liberal democratic model that the West so much cherishes and enforces in the rest of the world? Moreover, is it not deceitful to deny that Chávez was immensely popular amongst Venezuelans, as evidenced by his lopsided victories in elections deemed free and fair by international observers and even domestic opponents? And whatever disagreements one may have with Malema’s politics, is it not dishonest to refuse to accept that his supporters in South Africa vastly outnumber his detractors? Certainly, no British politician enjoys the soaring approval ratings of either Chávez or Malema in their respective countries, yet surely Cameron and Miliband “divide opinion,” too.

Conforming to the BBC’s blatant mission of defending neo-liberalism and dismissing all challenges, the presenter then poses a series of loaded, patronizing questions that Malema deftly answers without losing his cool. Indeed, while I have disagreements with Malema’s politics, I was quite impressed by his patient, concise, and sincere responses to Williams, who abandons even the basic journalistic pretense of objectivity in his agenda of belittling Chávez’s legacy.

The short interview offers Malema an opportunity to defend Chávez against the usual unsubstantiated attacks as well as offer a crash course on imperialism as Williams dutifully upholds prevailing ideology. Consider this early exchange, during which Malema skillfully responds with facts while reinforcing his own domestic agenda:

Williams: Also, didn’t [Chávez] represent an old and quite frankly failed ideology of nationalization.?  I mean, most countries in Africa this day and   age don’t seem to buy into that idea of nationalizing industry, moving more towards market-oriented form of economics.

Malema: In Venezuela, we have seen the success of nationalization of both the mining industry and the oil industry and, as a result of that nationalization, we have seen the strengthening of education, health, and the people of Venezuela directly benefiting from the natural resources of their own country. Despite market resistance from imperialist puppets, Chávez remained committed and remained steadfast on the idea of people owning their own resources.

Loyally following the script, the BBC journalist then raises one of the simplistic charges against Chávez, repeated ad nauseam by the media: “But also didn’t that come with some baggage, in terms of making friends with all the wrong people?” Malema chooses to evade that one, but an impartial listener would ask, “whose wrong people”? Of course, Williams means Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. But, the relationship between Venezuela and Cuba has been mutually beneficial, providing blockaded Cuba with oil in exchange for doctors and teachers dispatched to the poorest communities in Venezuela. It is only normal Venezuela and Iran, as leading members of OPEC, would cooperate, especially when both nations are subject to destabilization campaigns by the U.S. And was not Gaddafi, at least in the several years leading up to his murder during the 2011 NATO military invasion, a friend of the West? Are the dictators of Bahrain, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, all crucial allies of the West, the “right people”?

Betting that persistence pays off, the presenter returns to his original argument with the following question:

But, looking more broadly at the international scene, I mean you’re talking  about a system that has manifestly failed, the Soviets have ditched it, the Chinese don’t think it works, only — I don’t know — Cuba or Venezuela think that that it works.

Malema rightly points out the prevailing support for socialist parties and governments throughout Latin America and patiently explains “it doesn’t mean that if it has failed in the past, you can’t look at where it has failed and ensure that it works better for our people and don’t repeat the previous mistakes.”

Undeterred, Williams perseveres, condescendingly asking, “Isn’t it true that the only and single unifying force that binds you and Mr. Chávez’s ideology is your common hatred for the west”? Ignoring the provocation, Malema corrects the journalist by saying he and Chávez shared a “common hatred of imperialism.” Astonishingly, Williams asks for clarification: “And when you say ‘imperialism’ what does that phrase [sic] mean?” Malema succinctly presents the reality that not only Venezuela under Chávez, but all former colonies face in the capitalist world system, particularly in Africa:

It means those who want to micro-manage our country both  economically and politically through installing of their stooges and their  puppets run our country on their behalf pretending that those are the outcomes of a democratic process which they themselves would have manipulated.

Probably exhausted from his failed interrogation, Williams concludes with the one question that addresses the very reason for the interview: What is Chávez’s legacy for Africa? Malema admirably stays on message: “A legacy of fighting first against imperialism and that legacy will inspire many young people to continue to fight for their economic freedom because that is the most relevant struggle today.”

One can only imagine how increasingly difficult it must be for the managers of information, staring at their computer screens in corporate offices in London and New York and other cities of capital, to contradict the images of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans mourning their comandante in Caracas; the reports of a fast growing number of nations within and beyond Latin America (including African giant Nigeria) declaring official days of mourning in honor of Chávez; and not least the indisputable hard facts attesting to the successes of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution: drastic reduction of poverty, dramatic expansion in access to education and health care, genuine democratization of civil society, amongst many others.

The BBC must be regretting selecting Malema as the African charged with defending Chávez’s legacy.

  • BTW, we could not help noticing South African media outlets — in a country as equally unequal as Venezuela — parrotting global news media when reporting on Chávez’s passing. They also went to Julius Malema for comment. Here’s an example from ENews Africa who decided Malema is Chávez.

Further Reading

A power crisis

Andre De Ruyter, the former CEO of Eskom, has presented himself as a simple hero trying to save South Africa’s struggling power utility against corrupt forces. But this racially charged narrative is ultimately self-serving.

Cinematic universality

Fatou Cissé’s directorial debut meditates on the uncertain fate and importance of Malian cinema amidst the growing dismissiveness towards the humanities across the world.

The meanings of Heath Streak

Zimbabwean cricketing legend Heath Streak’s career mirrors many of the unresolved tensions of race and class in Zimbabwe. Yet few white Zimbabwean sporting figures are able to stir interest and conversation across the nation’s many divides.


After winning Italy’s Serie A with Napoli, Victor Osimhen has cemented his claim to being Africa’s biggest footballing icon. But is the trend of individual stardom good for sports and politics?