Mathews Phosa. Kgalema Motlanthe. Two members of the ANC's national officials – the top six, willing to put their heads above the parapet with Julius Malema. It would seem to be an odd choice, considering where Malema happens to find himself; there's clearly some serious political calculation underway. While it doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to win, it could be the start of something. Something big. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
On Friday Phosa is due to share a stage at Wits University with Malema. This last weekend Motlanthe spoke with Malema in Limpopo. Malema used the occasion (technically, yet another of those ANC centenary lectures) to announce that he will go to court to challenge the outcome of his ANC disciplinary process if he is expelled. It's clear now that there is a stark division within the top six. Still, this shouldn't come as a shock. Earlier this year Phosa stated that there isn't a dustbin for comrades in the ANC, a comment that earned him the serious ire of the rest of the top six. Motlanthe has received a huge reaction wherever the ANC Youth League has hosted him, first at its national general council back in 2010, and then at its conference last year.
Things are different now. There is a very real sense that some kind of campaign is underway. As always in a campaign year, one should treat stories that quote only "aides" very carefully. Everyone spins. So it could be Motlanthe's aides putting out the message that he's running. Or it could be Zuma's people controlling Motlanthe's aides, in a more complicated bid to stymie him in some way. Or even Motlanthe's people trying to make it look like they're controlled by Zuma but aren't. Double crossing. In our politics. Shocking, isn't it? But not surprising.
What really tells us there is indeed something underway is not so much appearances or speeches with Malema, but Phosa's comments to the Sunday Times last week. In that piece, he spoke about the possibility of a North African-style uprising in South Africa. He spoke about the vast army of unemployed. While he cannot be doubted on the facts, what he's really doing is putting some distance between himself and the other leaders of the ANC. He's saying that he's not to blame for what's going on, for the fact that there has been no real material change in the lives of those who voted for the ANC.
There's form here in the ANC. This is exactly what happened when Zuma swept all before him at Polokwane. He spoke about the need for a "state of emergency on Aids and crime". His aides sounded like members of an opposition party. There was no real sense of unity, but the use of a "slate" in which only leaders he selected ended up in the top six. Zuma is likely to see Phosa's comments for what they appear to be: campaign talk.
This is despite the fact that Phosa and Motlanthe are actually members of Zuma's top six. Motlanthe appears to be doing what he did in 2007. He was Mbeki's secretary-general. In the long-running game of chess that is Luthuli House, he seemed to be jumping from block to block, changing horses as he goes. So far this was a strategy that's worked for him. He seems to have a good eye for the long game, with a view for the political heights. But this is not a game he can play forever. The problem with jumping from camp to camp, is that people start to notice after a while. And so they start not to trust you as much as they did when you were a spring chicken.
Add to this Motlanthe's age (he's 62) and it seems that he's made a calculation that this is really his last chance. If he doesn't win at Mangaung, he's not going to win, ever. There is almost sense of desperation about this. It must be this sense that is pushing him to get closer to a possible carrer-ending contact that is Julius Malema. Our thesis has always been that people like Phosa were using Malema for their own ends. This wasn't about defending Malema for the sake of defending Malema. It's about defending Malema for the sake of weakening Zuma. Despite the fact Malema is about as politically weak as a dead snake in formal politics at the moment, he still has this particular use.
Whenever someone appears with Malema, for the moment at least, they're associated as the "other" to Zuma's ANC. They're seen as somehow being against the decision to "take over" Limpopo and the "unfair expulsion" of Malema. They're also against the status quo, the fact that nothing has changed. It also has the happy side effect of making it look as if they're somehow not responsible for the "now". They're not responsible for the misery that we see around us.
Perhaps this is the reason so many of these appearances are under a banner including the phrase "economic freedom". This is becoming the rallying cry for the anti-Zuma parts of the ANC. It's handy, in that it signifies money. It's shorthand for saying “you will be rich”. Of course, the emphasis is on "freedom" and not on responsibility. It also has a nice ring about "radical change" to it. Which fits in nicely with the anti-establishment message that it's wrapped up into.
But none of this appears to really be about Malema himself. It doesn't seem possible that he can really be saved, at least for now. His suggestion that he's going to go to court would seem to really be about keeping the issue alive, so that he can still be used to hurt Zuma. It may also be that he's really getting worried about those pesky investigations into his finances. The longer the ANC battle goes on, the longer it would seem those investigations are going to take, before any kind of police action (i.e. an arrest) occurs. Of course, Malema's calculation is that if Motlanthe and Phosa do sweep through with their own tsunami at Mangaung, then he would be reinstated.
If this is the situation in which the anti-Zuma ANC finds itself, what does this mean for the Zuma ANC? It means that it will have a fight on its hands. But just because Phosa and Motlanthe are running, doesn't mean that they will win. Zuma still looks very strong, he seems to have control of the ANC's mythical "middle ground". And he has very firm control of the ANC's biggest province, KwaZulu-Natal. Along with support in the intelligence services, which could be key.
In the years to come, we could look back at where we are now and see that it was the start of a new tsunami. Or just another week of turbulence in the ANC. DM
Grootes is an EWN reporter.
Photo: The ANC's top six in Polokwane. (Reuters)