If there is any lesson to be learnt in South Africa, it is this: “You don’t mess with the old timers.” They have mastered the art of patience – and the dark science of politics. Julius Malema, the enfant terrible, mastered none of the above. Now he is bleeding badly.
It was a clear pointer to the exit when Julius Malema, the ANC Youth League firebrand’s appeal against a five-year suspension from ANC membership was rejected by the parent body in early February. But the young man appears undaunted.
In a defiant speech at the congress of the ANC Youth League on 10 February, Malema breathed fire, criticising the government for the country’s loss of prestige on the African continent as well as the betrayal of the ANC Freedom Charter which had advocated for the nationalisation of mines, among others.
Then he noted that the cause for which he has been a vociferous messenger – “economic freedom in our time” – would not go away too soon even if he was in jail. It was a farewell.
Reports say South Africa’s special crime fighting unit, the Hawks, is circling around the alleged millions of rand that Malema has made in dubious transactions, using his political clout. Ironically he is a curious example of how to be economically free.
Politically, the fate that has befallen Malema had been long in coming. Finally the hammer fell when he was charged last year and convicted of, among other things, sowing division in the mother ANC body. This was preceded by an earlier conviction in 2010, during which he pleaded guilty to similar charges and was given a two-year suspended sentence. The two years had hardly expired when his “motormouth” got him in trouble again.
Among other transgressions, he openly called for the replacement of President Jacob Zuma. He compared him in an unfavourable light to his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, and declared that the African agenda died with Mbeki. He has called Botswana’s president, Ian Khama, an agent of imperialism and has threatened to mobilise for regime change there. Now it seems it is his regime that is being changed.
In a ruling that came as no surprise, the ANC national disciplinary committee appeals board (headed by the respected politician/business tycoon, Cyril Ramaphosa), slammed most of Malema’s arguments as ridiculous. One such argument was that the ANC Youth League was autonomous from the parent body, and consequently he could not be disciplined by the ANC.
In a lengthy judgment, the appeals board made it clear: “Discipline,” it said, “is one of the key pillars in the life of the ANC.” It is true that Malema has been a nightmare when it comes to discipline. He has shown disrespect to everyone. Now his bubble has burst.
Addressing the Youth League congress, the South African deputy president, Kgalema Mothlanthe, who Malema had punted as a replacement for Zuma, noted that “the youth should not be intoxicated by past successes” – this was an apparent reference to the heady days when they mobilised to successfully dethrone ex-President Thabo Mbeki. Those times were different and are best contextualised. But context is a virtue that the Youth League has lacked.
However, in a sop to justice, Malema and his lieutenants were found not guilty on charges of barging into a meeting of the ANC top six office-bearers last year, during which President Zuma angrily lambasted them saying: “Who do you think you are. Do you think you run this country?”
Malema and his lieutenants may well have thought so. Several years after Mbeki was toppled and Zuma installed as president with the solid backing of the Youth League, Malema had dominated the public discourse. He appeared to subsume the presidency and the ANC, or at best seemed to co-govern with Zuma because he thought the president had ceded the space. Zuma in fact went to the extent of touting Malema as a future leader of the country, comparable to Nelson Mandela.
Malema’s ego ballooned and he went on to make bold sweeping pronouncements of policy outside the parent body. He threatened everybody, including ministers. He disrespected the president and his executive in public. He gratuitously insulted anybody who crossed his path. He was untouchable.
As Malema had been touted as a kingmaker, Zuma’s rivals took note and backed him. Nobody knows how many secret meetings he may have had, but it seems apparent that without the backing of some powerful politicians, Malema would never have had the temerity to do some of the surprising things he did, to the extent of calling for the removal of the president of the ANC and country, Jacob Zuma; as well as the powerful secretary of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe.
It was youthful folly of the highest order, because those targeted were not going to curl up their heels and die. And thus came the sledgehammer and the knife. But Malema was only a messenger, a product of other ambitions.
In Malema’s blue corner have been Winnie Mandela and the treasurer of the ANC, Mathews Phosa. Prominent among his backers has also been the billionaire politician/businessman Tokyo Sexwale, the minister of human settlements.
Then there was the youthful minister of sports, Fikile Mbalula, formerly the ANC Youth League president and predecessor of Malema, who Malema had pencilled in as a replacement for Mantashe. Interestingly they remain in office, except for Winnie, who left government years ago. Phosa said openly, to much annoyance from the ruling party, that Malema had done no wrong. But nobody was listening. Statements and counter- statements have flowed back and forth in the run-up to next December’s ANC congress in Mangaung where Zuma’s bid for a second four-year term as ANC president (and concomitantly, president of the country) will be on the line.
If you wield a sharp knife, there is only one course of action. Malema has to go. Just as Oscar Wilde wryly noted that “you play fair when you have the winning cards”, Zuma’s faction has tried to play fair, through a judicial process.
Will Malema’s backers stand by him? Not if they are true politicians. There is now a sense that he has outlived his usefulness. As he himself rightly parodied, quoting an erstwhile British politician: “In the game of politics, there are no permanent friends”.
Malema was simply a narcissistic young man lost in the murky and uncharted waters of old political sharks. He was not his own voice.
With very few aces left, Malema will have to play rough. Zuma did the same when he was under siege from Mbeki’s government in their power struggle of yore. He roped in national intelligence agents to tape conversations which eventually led to a withdrawal of what he says were politically motivated charges against him. Now Malema is saying the same thing.
The next rough option is to send insurgents to topple the president at the battle of Mangaung. But of course Zuma is leaving nothing to chance and good luck. Malema’s base is being steadily eroded in the branches of the Youth League as big provinces like KwaZulu-Natal, from where Zuma hails, have broken ranks.
If things go badly enough, Malema will be very busy this year in numerous trips to the courthouse. He will garner noise at the doorsteps in the first few days, but on the 40th day, he will be walking alone. He will not have an organisation behind him like Zuma did in his times of trouble.
And more powerful politicians of the times are already cooling off in jail. The former struggle stalwart and ex-national commissioner of police who doubled as the head of Interpol, Jackie Selebi, is serving a sentence of 15 years in jail for corruption after his appeal was thrown out last year by the Supreme Court. Who would have imagined that?
How Malema will survive is unclear. Already plans are in place to replace the “replacer”.
“The market demand strategy will result in the creation of more jobs in the South African economy, as well as increased localisation and black economic empowerment,” the president said. “It will also position South Africa as a regional trans-shipment hub for sub-Saharan Africa and deliver on NEPAD’s regional integration agenda.
“The massive investment in infrastructure must leave more than just power stations. It must industrialise the country, generate skills and boost much-needed job creation,” he added.
Though admitting that his plan for creating half a million jobs a year had failed, he said that 365,000 jobs had been created last year – resulting in the reduction of the unemployment rate from 25% to 23.9%. This is the country’s best performance since the recession in 2008,” he said to applause from the backbenches.
Two days after the state of the nation speech, the government unveiled new banknotes with Mandela’s portrait on them, which will come into use before the end of the year. The portrait is said to date back to 1990 when Mandela was released from prison. The unveiling of the new notes was timed to coincide with the 22nd anniversary of Mandela’s release from prison. “It is a befitting tribute to the man who became a symbol of his country’s struggle for human rights and democracy,” Zuma said.
In his state of the nation address, Zuma said out of the R9bn jobs fund announced last year, over R1bn had been committed to businesses. He said R1.5bn was approved for 60 companies to promote job creation, through the Industrial Development Corporation.
On the thorny question of nationalisation, Zuma stated the government’s position. “We have answered this question many times, we are very clear … nationalisation is not ANC or government policy,” he said in an answer to a question during a televised breakfast briefing. “Our policy is mixed economy,” he added. Cold comfort to Malema, who made nationalisation the hallmark of his youthful presidency.
A mining sector study submitted to the ANC leadership in February rejected nationalisation as an “unmitigated disaster”. It proposed a 50% tax on mining profits as a way to help the poor better benefit from the country’s immense mineral riches.
The state of politics has not been for the faint-hearted. On the economic front the issue of black poverty, the space which Malema tried to occupy, has become urgent, to his credit. The nationalisation debate, especially of resources (the mines), has been thrust to the forefront and will not go away, however much “nationalisation is not ANC or government policy”, although Malema, the messenger, will be sacrificed, or is being sacrificed, on the altar of the obvious.