In July, an image of a significantly slimmer-looking Julius Malema, leader of South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), took many by surprise. Malema’s belly had shrunk, his cheeks were smaller and he looked five years younger.
Tweets of congratulations have since poured in: the politician has been praised by thousands on social media, with many asking him for weight-loss advice.
But this week, the ANC Youth League in KwaZulu-Natal released the following statement: “The youth league is concerned that the unexplainable weight loss of Julius has affected his mental ability and we therefore appeal to our minister of health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, and minister of social development, Bathabile Dlamini, to intervene in the matter of this fellow’s health and wellbeing so as to rescue him from self-destruction.”
The statement was in response to Malema’s accusation that youth league treasurer general Reggie Nkabinde is receiving money from his connections in the government.
Malema gained popularity during his time as ANC Youth League president between 2008 and 2012, when he was considerably heftier.
During that period, he fit the stereotypical physique many have come to associate with black politicians on the African continent – overweight men with round bellies attained from eating juicy steaks at high-end restaurants and shisanyamas (“buy and braai” establishments) that they wash down with copious quantities of expensive whiskey.
Although this stereotype, based on a racial trope, is problematic, the imagery of obese black men in suits has given birth to terms such as “boardroom six-packs”, referring to men’s pot bellies that are assumed to be a side effect of their acquired wealth.
Within the context of studies that have shown that South Africa is the fattest nation in sub-Saharan Africa, the incorrect and dangerous association between being over- weight and being wealthy should frighten us.
According to a 2014 study published in The Lancet medical journal, seven out of 10 women and four out of 10 men in South Africa are overweight or obese.
Numerous journal articles have revealed that overweight people are more likely to get cancer and suffer from heart disease. Too much body fat is also closely associated with diabetes, which is in turn linked to heart disease and strokes.
In a country such as South Africa, Malema’s weight loss should be viewed as an achievement and not ridiculed.
In an interview on eNCA, Malema said he had cut sugar from his diet, was eating healthier food and following a strict exercise plan.
Two of the main reasons for the country’s increase in obesity rates are a decrease in physical exercise and an increase in the consumption of fast food.
On the web-based radio station CliffCentral, Malema explained that Nelson Mandela told him that he could not lead people if he was overweight.
In his book Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela said: “I found the rigorous exercise to be an excellent outlet for tension and stress. After a strenuous workout, I felt both mentally and physically lighter. It was a way of losing myself in something that was not the struggle.”
But, like the ANC Youth League, people were alarmed by Malema’s weight loss.
“When I first saw his picture, I thought that he must be sick,” one friend said. Another thought “something is wrong” and said he had trusted the heavier Malema more.
Even Mandela was frowned on for being slim: “In jail, I had continued my exercises, and was pleased to be so trim. But Jabavu [a fellow prison inmate] eyed me suspiciously. ‘Madiba,’ he said, ‘why must you look so thin?’ In African cultures, portliness is often associated with wealth and wellbeing. He burst out: ‘Man, you were scared of jail, that is all. You have disgraced us, we Xhosas!’”
These kinds of perceptions also perpetuate the stigma around HIV and healthier lifestyle choices, making it difficult to reduce the rate of obesity.
Research has shown that South African women, especially black women, associate being thin with illness, particularly HIV. A 2011 University of the Western Cape study published in the South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that black South African women are not motivated to exercise because they fear that by losing weight they will be stigmatised as being infected with HIV.
Malema is not only trying to be healthy. His weight loss can be viewed as an attempt to redefine the face of wealth and political success – energetic, fit and youthful.
Perhaps, instead of taking jabs at Malema’s lifestyle transformation, the ANC Youth League should follow in his footsteps and start combating obesity in its own political backyard.