By: Mental Health Practitioner
WHILE diagnosing a public figure from his or her public behaviour is unsound psycho-diagnostic practice, Julius Malema does demonstrate an almost full house of traits of what diagnosticians call a narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissistic personality dynamics centre principally around the individual’s attempts to shore up a fundamentally inadequate sense of self-worth. In its most flagrant forms, pathological narcissism is most recognisable by an overwhelming projection of a sense of grandiosity. Ironically, though, this assertion of grandiosity is usually a function of exactly the opposite in terms of the internal dynamics of the narcissist, i.e. an overwhelming and terrifying doubt — often only partially conscious to the narcissist — that he or she is of value to others. The narcissist’s defence is typically to assert forcefully, often inappropriately and damagingly, the opposite of this internal conviction.
In their daily interactions with other people, pathological narcissists tend to regard them principally as potential sources of narcissistic supply, i.e. as objects that are of value if they can confirm to the narcissist that they are powerful, influential, valued and competent. Hence, they are largely disinterested in people who will be unable to bolster their grandiosity and they tend to like to have nothing to do with those who are likely to criticise them or even to offer objective assessments of their competence or desirability.
Narcissistic traits are very common among prominent politicians around the world.
Developmentally, narcissism can often arise when the very young child is inappropriately and unconditionally affirmed for whatever he or she does, without discrimination, or when the child is very inadequately affirmed during his or her struggles to develop a sense of personal identity. Some researchers have also suggested that pathological narcissism can arise later in life if there is an inordinate change in the individual’s circumstances, such as a move from abject poverty or insignificance to overwhelming wealth or influence. They have called this acquired situational narcissism.
The nine key diagnostic markers of narcissistic personality disorder and convincing examples where these have been on display by Malema, follow.
Narcissistic personality disorder is diagnosed in terms of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (IV), a handbook of definitions used by mental-health practitioners, by the presence of five or more of the following.
1. An exaggerated sense of self-importance, i.e. a sense of self-importance that is not matched by actual performance.
Evidence of Malema’s intellectual and performance capacity is not nearly as overwhelming as his claims to macro-economic policy development and judicious governance. He failed Grades 8 and 9 at school and has no formal tertiary training. While he appears to be a highly skilled demagogue in the mould of many ANC leaders, his technical capacity for skilled governance has yet to be seen.
2. Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love, i.e. they live in their own self-centred world and hate to be reminded that their fantasies don’t match reality.
After racially abusing BBC’s Johah Fisher in April, 2010, after Fisher remarked that Malema lives in an affluent suburb of Johannesburg, Malema was unapologetic about his actions. He accused Fisher of being disrespectful and of coming from a country that undermines the credibility and integrity of African leaders. But Malema’s narcissism is most evident in his insistence that Fisher apologise after the incident, despite the fact that the ANC and President Jacob Zuma condemned Malema’s outburst.
3. He believes he is special and should only associate with other special people.
Malema’s ready association with influential or powerful individuals, almost without reference to their associations or affiliations, suggests that to him, their power is their primary appeal. His endorsement of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and various leading ANC figures suggests a need for affiliation with power, with little regard to the integrity of that power.
4. Requires excessive admiration.
Malema’s hostile reactions to anyone who doesn’t provide the affirmation he demands, or who questions his integrity, and his relentless bids for greater political influence suggest his obsession with ever more political recognition and admiration. He very successfully secures this in the Youth League and this appears, in usual narcissistic fashion, to fuel further bids for recognition.
5. Has a sense of entitlement.
His claimed mission of advocacy for the poor from the luxury of his substantial Johannesburg home, his high-spending lifestyle and expensive fashion tastes (Breitling watches, etc.) and, more significantly, his outrage at any suggestions that these may be at odds with his apparently socialist ethics, suggest a sense of entitlement and a belief in his specialness. He is entitled to the luxuries that others don’t enjoy because he is special.
6. Selfishly takes advantage of others to achieve his own ends.
Malema’s survival is due almost entirely to his nuanced capacity for populism, based in a largely illiterate, disenfranchised and loyal black populace. Whether this constitutes taking advantage of others or just ordinary politics is a matter of opinion. But he appears to have enriched himself far more substantially than any of those who have kept at the top of the ANC Youth League pile.
7. Is envious of others or believes that others are envious of him.
Malema has made regular public assertions that there are “agents” and other forces that he believes are determined to sink him. If he genuinely believes that any difference of opinion with his own is the work of a harmful external force, he need never take any genuine notice of the opinions of those others. This is a foolproof narcissistic defence: those who don’t agree are jealous or mischievous, hence we need never consider the content of their criticisms of us.
8. Lacks empathy.
In March 2010, Malema was convicted of hate speech by the Equality Court for telling a Sasco (South African Students’ Congress) meeting that the woman who accused ANC president Jacob Zuma of rape had a “nice time” with him because in the morning she had “requested breakfast and taxi money”. His repeated insistence on the singing of the “Shoot the Boer” song and refusal to acknowledge that it may be offensive to others suggest a limited capacity for empathy. At the very least, he appears not to have a sense of the potential impact of his utterances on the feelings of others.
9. Shows arrogant, haughty, patronising or contemptuous behaviours or attitudes.
The media is littered with Malema’s contemptuous dismissals of those who are not in his camp, from political opponents to journalists, and extending to colleagues in the ANC who don’t share his views. His aggressive and angry outbursts suggest a poor capacity to regulate his rage at those who anger him, which is often a hallmark of somebody who is easily narcissistically wounded.