South Africa’s favourite “Young Lion”, Julius Malema, seems to have enjoyed a charmed life up to now. But just over the horizon would appear to lie some trouble. And it involves some of the country’s strongest leaders, and one of the most important up-and-coming politicians of our time. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
That Malema has been living high off the fat of the land, enjoying himself at ZAR and the Met and generally receiving all the comforts that may accrue to those who think the spoils of the minerals beneath the soil should go equally to all the people, especially the people that are more equal than others goes without saying.
But on Friday the Mail and Guardian ran a fascinating piece about movements within the ANC Youth League. Essentially, its sources, all secretive in the usual way, suggest President Zuma is backing Gauteng arts and culture MEC Lebogang Maile to run against Malema in this year’s ANCYL national conference, scheduled for June. It suggests police minister Nathi Mthethwa could be a part of the campaign too. Later on Friday Maile told EWN “it would not be appropriate to discuss Youth League leadership issues in public”. To us, that means, “Yes, I’m running”.
This is the first indication that Malema’s political career could be in for stormy weather. Maile is a tough customer to beat. There are several reasons for this. The first is that it would appear he has the backing of Zuma. While there will be plenty of denials, the fact that no one will speak on the record on this means we have to read the tea leaves, as we have. That Zuma is backing anyone, but Malema is no surprise. He’s been the biggest political headache for him since assuming the presidency. Malema has had his uses in that, after some nifty footwork, Zuma has been able to translate anger and fear within the ANC and the country, into support for Zuma himself.
But the real headaches of the last few years, the call for nationalisation, the “kill the boer” song, have made life harder than it should have been for Zuma. Need we state that all those issues remain unresolved, leaving space, no matter how improbably, for Malema to claim victory - of sorts . Mthethwa’s alleged involvement is no surprise, he’s a Zuma loyalist and has been brave enough to speak out against Malema in public from time to time, albeit in coded language. And his relationship with Malema's ally, Fikile Mbalula, was reportedly bad while they were sharing the safety and security portfolio.
All of this means Maile, if he does run, should have the support of Zuma and Mthethwa. It probably also means he’ll be able to call on the political brain that is Gwede Mantashe, who would love to see Malema seriously wounded in a bruising fight, even if he is to win it. Mantashe is still the only person who’s used the phrase “Shut up, Julius” in a live Talk Radio 702 debate. And, of course, without Malema, the chances of Fikile Mbabula being able to oust him from his ANC secretary-generalship are slim.
That Maile will get that kind of support is predictable. But what is more interesting is the role arts and culture minister and Gauteng ANC chairman Paul Mashatile will play in all this. Last year Mashatile ran against Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane for the post of Gauteng ANC leader. And won. His campaign was run in the main by Maile. Thus, when the time came for Mashatile to force (did we say “force”, we meant “gently suggest”) Mokonyane to shuffle her cabinet, Maile was rewarded with a post, despite the fact he was only 31. Mokonyane’s campaign was organised to an extent, by a man called Thabo Kupa. He was the chairman of the Gauteng ANC Youth League at the time and a huge supporter of Malema. He publicly announced the provincial league was backing Mokonyane, before being faced with a humiliating rebellion by league members. In the end, the provincial league ended up backing Mashatile. The leadership election in the league a few weeks later was a formality, with Mashatile-backed Maile easily beating Kupa.
Then, at last year’s ANC national general council, there was Malema storming the stage to protest against the final declaration on nationalisation. He and his comrades tried to prevent ANC policy chief Jeff Radebe from reading out what had been prepared. His merry little band was stopped by the much larger presence of Mashatile, who as Gauteng chairman went on the stage with other provincial chairs to head off Malema.
So when Maile is named as someone who could be taking on Malema, he’s actually the focal point of a whole range of senior ANC interests. The fact Zuma and Mashatile aren’t best of friends after the ANC’s national executive committee passed him over for the position of Gauteng premier may now be buried for a while as they focus on a common enemy in Malema.
Maile would appear to be in a great political position, with backing from the president himself, from his political mentor Mashatile and no doubt some other serious people. But all of that might not be enough for him to prevail. As we’ve said before, Malema controls the machinery of the ANCYL. That includes the accreditation process. And, repeat after us: He who controls accreditation wins. Even in Eastern Cape where Malema’s former main rival Andile Lungisa appeared strong it was a Malema supporter who eventually “won” through a process that will not be remembered for its fairness.
But for Maile and his supporters, losing could still be an option. For a start, it may be worthwhile for Zuma and Mantashe to keep Malema busy for a while. Nothing concentrates a politician's mind as clearly as a campaign aimed at his home base. Hell, we may even find the nationalisation stuff goes off the boil for a bit, as he focuses on just keeping his job. If Maile wins, great. If he doesn’t, well, he’ll keep his job in the Gauteng provincial cabinet, and have the grateful thanks of his backers. For him, it’s win-win. For Malema, there may be a sleepless night or two in the offing. Or more. Many more. DM
Grootes is an EWN reporter.