Is Julius Malema now an unstoppable force? If not, he's getting pretty close, and that has some serious implications for Jacob Zuma, Gwede Mantashe, mining companies and farm owners. BY STEPHEN GROOTES.
It says something when you can become the most powerful political figure in the country and just take it in your stride. It wasn't Julius Malema’s election victory that was surprising, or the way he strode, ten feet tall, into the VIP Lounge afterwards. All of that was expected. It was the fact that his mini-press conference after his famous victory looked like just another Friday night for him.
Like everything at this conference, the elections ran according to the Malema script. He wanted the trains to run on time, and they did. The nominations process was due to start at eight; it was all over by then. Because they started a few minutes early and Lebogang Maile decided “not to accept a nomination”. And that, dear friends, was that. The only potential Malema-challenger strode purposefully into the dark night, surrounded by about six of those black-suit-red-tie bodyguards who are looking after all the major figures at the conference. At the first sign of Malema supporters getting a little close it took just a quick “chief, don’t”, and that was the last chance for trouble defused.
Just like his bodyguards, there was no menace in Maile either. He spoke softly, almost gently, explaining, both to his interviewers, and to the people crowding around him, that this decision was because “I would never put my own interests above those of my province”. In his version, his province, Gauteng, decided two weeks ago to back Malema, and he had to go along with that. Oh please Mr MEC! You didn’t have the numbers and now you’re just rolling over. But that is your right.
Back in the main hall, Malema’s great night was continuing. He got the slate he wanted, and even the Eastern Cape’s bid to back Ayanda Matiti for the post of secretary-general didn’t get past the nominations phase. Instead KwaZulu Natal Deputy leader Sindiso Magaqa got the nod, leaving Malema with a friendly and probably quite cooperative top leadership of the organisation he runs.
And what then does Malema intend to do with all this power? When facing such a direct question, he used the Zuma Block. “I have no priorities because the members haven’t yet decided. So we have to wait for the conference to finish, you see. And then, miraculously, the delegates will decide to nationalise the mines and expropriate farm land.
But on to more serious matters.
We now have to consider the question of who is more powerful: Malema, or the Jacob Zuma/Gwede Mantashe axis. As politics-watcher Ranjeni Munusamy put it so well on Twitter overnight, Malema has overcome everyone who has opposed him, within the ANC and outside of it. Meanwhile Zuma seems to just dither, and goes from a tough League Conference to an empty Orlando Stadium without seeming to know what is going on. We’re not saying he doesn’t, just that he hasn't publicly acknowledged it.
The roots of whatever will happen at the ANC's own elective conference in Mangaung next year lie here, in Midrand. With Malema as a hugely emboldened figure, Zuma and Mantashe have a massive problem on their hands. Zuma may now seek a deal, and that could involve accepting Fikile Mbalula as secretary-general. That’s a high price for the current SG, Mantashe, and don’t forget that precedent of the Mbeki Recall.
As for policy, well, Malema said on the first day of this conference that nationalisation was now centre stage because of the Youth League. He is right, and he is going to keep it there.
Overall though, the feeling one gets looking back at this night is that it could really mark a turning point in the radicalism of our politics. Things are moving leftward, and faster than we had realised. The person best position to benefit from that is Julius Malema. We honestly don’t know what, apart from a brand new tsunami, could stop him now. DM
Photo: Julius Malema campaigns in Mitchell's Plain, 2009. (REUTERS)