This week: Seshego, Limpopo
Chaos erupted in Julius Malema’s hometown after he was kicked out of the ANC. GREG NICOLSON visited the town to discover what happened and what Malema’s downfall meant for the province.
There’s a story I heard at the ANC Limpopo elective conference about what Julius Malema meant to his supporters. An ANC Youth League member who had landed a well-paying government job as a result of the league’s push for intergenerational mix was candid about her allegiance to Malema and Premier Cassel Mathale’s faction. Her job now depends on their power, she told another journalist. One reason why Malema commanded the ANC megaphone was his role in creating this network of patronage.
But his support extends to those who see him as the sole voice of truth. They’ve had enough of the government’s sputtering drive to reduce unemployment, inequality and increase access to education and basic services. They want a radical change and Malema’s militant rhetoric on economic freedom and the nationalisation of resources was as good as as they’d heard.
I heard another story at the provincial conference. Supporters of the Joe Paahla slate opposing Mathale accused the premier’s “mafia” of doling out tenders like thank-you cards, stifling debate and rigging ANC leadership votes.
This region runs on relationships. It has some of the country’s poorest communities. It’s where a wealthy businessman governed the province into bankruptcy and prompted the national government to intervene. It’s where tenders can make a man. Needless to say, the stakes are high on the kingpin’s crown.
On Wednesday night, after the ANC national disciplinary committee increased Malema’s sentence from a five-year suspension to expulsion from the party, his political rivals in Seshego celebrated and marched to his grandmother’s house where he was staying. The firebrand recently demolished the house that was here in Zone 1 and built his gogo the most lavish home in the township. When Malema’s there, luxury vehicles conspicuously line the street.
Armed with liquid courage, his detractors arrived at the house carrying a tombstone announcing Malema’s death. The group of 80 faced off against Malema’s supporters and both camps started to throw rocks and then punches. A neighbour said it became impossible to tell who was in which camp as violence engulfed the street. Some reports say 100 gunshots were fired, others put the figure much lower. The crowd scattered when Malema’s bodyguards started firing shots into the air, attracting police who finally calmed the situation in the early hours of the morning. Malema, said the neighbour, acted like nothing had happened. He came to address some of the crowd as though everything was normal.
Speaking to media in Seshego on Thursday, the ANCYL announced its continued support for Malema. Rodzani Ludere said the verdict was “unacceptable”, would divide the party and called for a meeting with ANC leadership. They remained determined, they said, to force nationalisation on to the state agenda despite its opponents. Malema ally sports minister Fikile Mbalula called the expulsion a “political tragedy” while some provincial ANCYL leaders said Malema remains their leader. They are meeting this weekend to discuss the ANCYL leadership’s options.
In Seshego, everyone seems to know Juju or at least where he lives, but it’s split between those for and against the boy who started out by organising demonstrations at his Polokwane school and became the most divisive figure in the country.
On Thursday night, Malema’s opponents gathered at the house of Boy Mamabolo, a former friend and ally who, like many, turned against him because of his authoritarian leadership style and the feeling he was enriching himself and leaving old friends behind. It started out as a party with music blaring and people chatting across fences. One youth league member went under the light of the street lamp to show the bruise on his forehead from Wednesday night’s clashes.
As the young politicos continued to drink, police vehicles crept up the street. As they continued to arrive, some having been called in from another area, cop cars eventually lined the whole street. Forty police watched as 15 men started to toyi-toyi, celebrating Malema’s expulsion and praising President Zuma. The young men asked why there were so many police telling them they cannot be on the road while Malema’s friends lined a nearby street drinking next to their Range Rovers.
Apart from Mamabolo’s Mercedes, the two scenes couldn’t have been more different. The cars outside Malema’s house looked like they’d come straight off a Sandton showroom floor. Outside Mamabolo’s house there were only two cars – a Golf and my exhausted Mazda. Mamabolo said he was committed to fighting Juju for as long as it takes.
Photo: Moses Maponya and Daniel Majola, former friends and allies of Julius Malema, have celebrated his downfall, calling him greedy and unhelpful to the people of Sheshego. (Greg Nicolson/iMaverick)
To escape the stifling police presence, I went to another house to interview two of Malema’s old associates. Moses Maponya went to school with him and was recruited into the Congress of South African Students by Malema. He bitterly tells of how “Julius” imposed leaders on ANCYL and Cosas. “Everywhere, he imposed. That is why we are fighting. It is precisely because of his dictatorship.”
Maponya says Malema changed after his dog died when he was young. “He used to hunt. He used to have a dog. When the dog died he was angry at everybody. That dog was assisting him to hunt meat. I think that was the reason his heart was broken.” He continued, “In a nutshell, he’s from a very poor background and tries to represent poor people. But he was lying. At the time he was enriching himself.”
Stories abound about a young Julius Malema who was helped by the families of his friends only to turn his back on them once in power. Daniel Majola’s father was a pastor and his brother was one of Malema’s best friends. Malema would come over every lunchtime because the Majolas always had bread and cheese. There he made political plans with David Majola. Daniel watched, sleeping in the same bed when Malema stayed over.
He said Juju changed when he went to live in Johannesburg as president of Cosas. He returned determined to impose his own successors. “The thing that brought Julius down is to become greedy,” he said. “He’d never call the comrades of Limpopo to see how they’re doing. Julius is not a good person to the people of Zone 1 (where he grew up).”
Sitting in the house of an old friend of Malema’s, who isn’t in touch anymore, Majola commands the interview as if it was an ANC meeting. He calls for respect while another talks on the phone and raises his hand to call for order when there’s disagreement. He stares straight ahead and makes certain he weighs each word appropriately - qualities that could have made him a strong leader had he not fallen out with Malema. “These people took this organisation to be a business. It’s no longer the ANC Youth League. It’s no longer the ANC. They develop friends from other regions and use them.”
After midnight, the party at Mamabolo’s house starts to look like a farce. People have drunk more, but it’s winding down. One man lies talking on the bonnet of a car while across the road a dozen police monitor the situation with a steely gaze.
“Julius undermined the leadership of the ANC and of the country. He made a mistake in the organisation, but never pleaded guilty,” said Majola. Along with Maponya and a few others, he’s been one of the key anti-Malema supporters who have maintained their opposition and organised the firebrand’s tombstone. He doesn’t think Malema will be out of the ANC just yet. As a youth he showed extraordinary abilities to organise protests and has long been a part of the ANC. “He knows the procedures of the ANC too well. He will remain a member of the ANC.”
To clarify Malema’s current options, the men called a friend. He can go to the disciplinary appeals committee which might reduce his sentence. The ANC national executive committee can intervene should they see fit. Or, he could raise the matter at the national elective conference in December. But it’s unlikely he’ll make it that long. It might be possible to lobby for some sort of party constitutional change at the ANC’s policy conference in June, but that’s highly debatable. Malema’s choice for ANC president, Kgalema Motlanthe, said this week he hopes it’s not the end of Juju’s political career.
As the night ended with none of the trouble of the previoust night, I was reminded of the province’s system of “who you know rather than what you know”. Staying at a hotel owned by an ANC comrade, recommended by ANC members, I parked next to a fleet of provincial government cars here for a conference.
Julius Malema’s “tombstone” had been laid, but patronage and populism are not as easy to kill. Some his political opponents seem most upset they were left out of his network of power rather than the idea that they might be able to do more for their communities.
But at a late-night chicken shop, an acquaintance of Malema’s explained his biggest problem. The ANCYL was trying to achieve a grand idea – that of “economic freedom” – without wanting to take gradual steps up the ladder, he said. “What is ‘economic freedom’? You cannot define it. We need to develop our communities first.” He speaks with reason, but one wonders whether politics will follow suit. It seems, in Seshego at least, too many people have either climbed aboard the Malema gravy train or have been run over by it for any form of reasoned debate to prevail. DM
Main photo: Police arrived in force to an anti-Malema party on Thursday night to prevent a repeat of Wednesday's chaos. By Greg Nicolson/iMaverick.