He has been described as “a loose cannon with a lot of valid points”, “the wrong messenger for the right message”, “an activist who hears ideas and if this or that takes his fancy, he runs with it.” He is only 30 years old and has only 12 years of high school education. So how come this young man, called Julius Malema, is able to create such excitement in South Africa to the extent that all the political parties in the country, including his own ANC of which he is the president of the Youth League, have teamed up against him.
In the 2007 run-up to the African National Congress (ANC) elective conference in Polokwane (that would eventually topple ex-President Thabo Mbeki), Julius Malema said he would “kill” for Zuma. He meant a political killing. Thabo Mbeki died a slow and painful political death at the time, while his archenemy now president, Jacob Zuma, rose from the ashes to the presidency.
Now Julius Malema, the enfant terrible of South African politics, wants to “kill” Zuma. He now describes Mbeki as “the best president the country ever had”. How did it come to this, and where will it all end?
“There are no permanent friends in politics,” Julius Malema, the now beleaguered president of the ANC Youth League, has wryly noted. “A week is a long time in politics,” one former British statesman dared to opine, and Malema has matured quickly for his 30 years of existence – especially since Polokwane. There is fire in his eyes!
In 2008, when he was elected president of the ANC Youth League, he quickly came into national prominence by consolidating his alliance with Zuma, who had been under siege from forces supporting ex-President Mbeki. Zuma had been fired as the deputy president of the country, and had had to endure an embarrassing rape trial. Pending were corruption and fraud charges that carried a minimum sentence of 15 years. Zuma survived, and Malema thrived.
Long before Mbeki lost the vote for the presidency of the ANC, Malema had led the charge against him and publicly declared that Mbeki was going to be fired. He was fired. Malema has since been seen as a kingmaker, and his victories have further emboldened him. He has made public pronouncements that few would dare whisper. He has made bold statements on intractable problems such as the land question, and the huge inequality divided along racial lines. His ability to articulate the frustrations of the marginalised unemployed youth on national and international platforms has won him many admirers and many enemies in equal measure. Chief among the latter are the largely white-owned local press and minorities who feel threatened by his “African agenda”, as he puts it.
But who is Julius Malema, listed by Forbes magazine as one of “Africa’s most powerful [Top Ten] young men”, and also by New African in its “100 most influential people on the continent”? President Zuma himself once described Malema as a future leader of the country and even compared him to Nelson Mandela in his youth. That was then.
Malema was born on 3 March 1981 in a village called Seshego in the Limpopo province of South Africa. He does not know his father and does not wish to meet him. His mother was a domestic worker who toiled to bring him up. When she passed away, Malema was raised by his grandmother. When he was nine, he joined the Masupatsela (a nationalist youth movement) whose main task was to illegally remove the posters of the apartheid National Party.
Malema took longer than usual to complete secondary school, graduating at the age of 21 from Mohlakaneng High School, and failing some subjects.
He was elected as chairman of the ANC Youth League branch in Seshego, and later as its regional chairman in 1995. Two years later, he became the chairman of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) for the Limpopo province, and was elected as the national president of COSAS in 2001. Politics became his very existence. Malema caught the nation’s attention in 2002 when he led a COSAS march by school pupils, through the streets of Johannesburg characterised by incidents of violence and looting.
He was first elected president of the ANC Youth League in April 2008, and re-elected unopposed on 17 June 2011 when his main rival, Lebogang Maile, declined the nomination. Malema was then at the peak of his political might and almost invincible.
Now it is déjà vu all over again in the run-up to the 2012 ANC elective conference scheduled to take place in the city of Mangaung (formerly Bloemfontein) when the ANC president and the presidential candidate will be chosen for national elections fixed for 2014. The long political knives have been drawn. The chief target in the battle for Mangaung is the perceived kingmaker Julius Malema, who through the structures of the ANC Youth League, has been able to dominate the core ANC branches. Delegates from the branches elect the president, and it is at that level where the youth are most active. It has been one major reason why President Zuma has treated Malema with kid gloves. Until they fell out.
Malema had been repeatedly showing disrespect to the president over a period of time, and had even told him publicly that “we put you there”. Not even a disciplinary action last year against him that resulted in a six-month suspended sentence for two years, has stopped Malema from second guessing the president at every turn. He seemed like the real president of the country.
Zuma’s political rivals took note and have aligned with Malema over recent months. Prominent people have courted him. Of no secret is Tokyo Sexwale, the billionaire businessman and current minister of housing and human settlements.
Winnie Mandela has appeared with Malema in public and French-kissed him in front of the Johannesburg High Court. She has pronounced that people ignore Malema at their own peril in the race to Mangaung.
If Malema has a political fault, it is because he calls a spade a spade and not a big spoon. He does not hide his intentions. He often simply tells a truth that is too unpalatable for others. He is raw.
Malema has openly called for the replacement of President Zuma by his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe and boldly declared that he wanted the powerful secretary general of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, to be replaced by the youthful minister of sports, Fikile Mbalula.
In the past, Malema has taken on ministers in public and passed scathing remarks about their office, threatening some with removal. He has spoken like a god, who issues decrees that are inevitable in their outcome. For a 30-year-old man, with 12 years of high school, he has come very far.
His most recent criticism of President Zuma was shocking. He asserted that the president of the country must “be respected by all sections of society and must have academic qualifications”. Zuma has no formal education, and is still dogged by previous sexual scandals and allegations of family corruption. Now Malema’s enemies, including all the president’s men, have rallied. The tipping point is the coming of Mangaung. In a replay of Polokwane 2007, Mangaung 2012 will be another battle for the soul of the ANC – between the Kingmaker versus the King. The President of the ANC versus the President of the ANC Youth League. It is an extraordinary development in the history of Africa’s oldest political party, which celebrates its centenary next year. The old adage holds true. “If you shoot at the King, you don’t miss.”
Round one of the battle has been an intense media campaign against Malema. He has been accused of corruption, amongst many other things. Pictures have been taken of an alleged R16m (£1.3m) mansion he is building in the plush Johannesburg suburb of Sandton. He has been photographed with a Breitling wristwatch allegedly valued at R250,000 while cruising in different luxury cars.
There have been explosive reports of his role in a group in which he benefits from tenders he influences in his home province of Limpopo. The allegations go on to say that business people have been oiling his bank account, in order to secure government contracts.
The South African press has alleged that Malema’s family trust, called “Ratanang”, which has his son and his grandmother as beneficiaries, has interests in an engineering company called On-Point Engineering, which has cornered the distribution of most government construction tenders in the Limpopo province, raking in millions of rand. The term “tenderpreneur” has now become a most popular word in the South African lexicon. In response, Malema has defiantly brazened his way forward, telling the press that “how I make my money is none of your business”. He is not employed by the government, he asserts.
A few months ago, it was reported that the South African Revenue Service, the elite crime fighting unit the Hawks, and the Office of the Public Protector, were looking into Malema’s affairs.
However, what would surely kill off Malema would be his expulsion from the ANC or lengthy suspension ahead of Mangaung. That is the route his adversaries, who once cuddled him, until he took on a life of his own, have taken.
As matters now stand, it is either Zuma or Malema – a shoot-out. Whoever wins will spell disaster for the other. If Malema wins, Zuma will not be president for a second term, starting 2014. If Zuma wins, Malema will be condemned to the political wilderness with no platform.
It was so with prominent ANC members like Bantu Holomisa who was expelled over far smaller transgressions. He subsequently formed his own party (UDM) and has since become a lone voice in the wilderness. It has also been so with the formation of COPE (Congress of the People) following the Zuma-Mbeki showdown.
Malema currently faces disciplinary action that can lead to such an outcome. The trigger was when the ANC Youth League declared that they would send forces to back the opposition to do a regime change in neighbouring Botswana to topple that country’s president, Ian Khama. Malema has branded him an agent of imperialism partly because he allows a US military base in Botswana. But Malema has made worse comments in the past than this.
Included in the disciplinary charges are two nebulous ones: “Sowing divisions within the ANC” and “bringing the party into disrepute”. He is also alleged to have disrespectfully barged into a meeting of the ANC top brass that included the president.
He is charged together with members of his executive, in what is seen as a purge. The first day of the hearing (at the ANC headquarters in Luthuli House, Johannesburg, on 3 September) saw an unruly crowd of Malema supporters engaging in running battles with the police, in an attempt to storm the headquarters. This has eroded the sympathy of the nation, but Malema carries on fighting.
Two of his heavyweight supporters, Tokyo Sexwale and Winnie Mandela, have testified for him in the hearing, whose venue has been shifted from time to time to avoid a repeat of those ugly scenes.
Malema has employed delaying tactics, first attacking the validity of the charges, and then booking himself into hospital when the proceedings were to resume. Whether he is able to hold out until Mangaung is yet to be seen. Like Zuma, he will play the victim, which feeds well into the psyche of a once oppressed populace, yet to fully recover.
As a wily politician, Malema has opened up a new political front of appeal – “economic apartheid”. According to the Financial Times, 1995 median per capita expenditure among black South Africans stood at R333 ($43) a month, compared with R3,443 for whites. By 2008, the black figure was a bare R454 while white spending had risen to R5,668. And in spite of affirmative action initiatives, blacks held just 16 per cent of top management posts, while whites had 73 per cent. Malema has been moving fast and talking fast about “economic freedom [meaning economic equality between blacks and whites] in our time”, while at the same time he is a curious example of how to be economically free.
He has opened up raw wounds in the face of serious inequalities, black poverty, and unemployment. And he still has his megaphone, for now. Malema has been most vocal about the nationalisation of mines and the seizure of land, having pronounced the willing seller, willing buyer principle unworkable. He rails against the 95% ownership of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange by a 11% white minority. He calls it white monopoly capital.
He has picked up populist themes which have the potential to destabilise the country and force his opponents to reach a compromise. He has tried to also find a political solution by apologising sometimes, and at other times speaking well of his adversaries.
But his enemies are very determined to do him in. They know that his survival will mean their demise. And time is running out.
Gwede Mantashe, the ANC secretary general, has made no secret of his intentions either. He is quoted as saying that “the ANC is a big elephant, it moves slowly, but when it tramples on you, there will be nothing left of you”. Malema has humbly acknowledged the elephant in a multifaceted bid to save himself, but he goes on the offensive when he gets no mileage from his peace overtures.
It is early days yet in the Malema-Zuma showdown, but what is interesting is that for the first time in the history of the country, the ANC, and all the opposition parties are singing from the same hymn book with respect to Malema – that is the extent of the political enemies he has cultivated. However, he still retains support among the downtrodden and the middle classes.
In the meantime, Malema, while looking over his shoulders, is also eyeing a legacy. He has so far been the most vociferous champion of black economic emancipation since colonialism and apartheid. He has positioned himself as the black knight who will slay economic apartheid. This appetising political space will be hard to counter unless co-opted. He himself has said that they cannot kill his ideas (though not new) even if he lands in jail. That is true.
In pursuit of his agenda, he has visited Presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. His call for nationalisation of mines has gained momentum as well as his challenge of the land question. His threatened march to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange showed uncanny timing in the wake of the global “Occupy Wall Street” campaign now under way in most Western capitals. The refrain “economic freedom” is fast gaining currency.
Whatever the outcome of Mangaung in 2012, Malema will have written his chapter in the history of South Africa. And the country’s fight for economic change will never be the same.