It sounds good: President Jacob Zuma has now done what everyone’s been pushing for since January. On Saturday afternoon he acted against Julius Malema, decisively and emphatically. If you read the fine print, it may appear no real action is being taken. But pass it through the ANC thesaurus, and Zuma is about as pissed off as he can possibly be.
There a few things that really stand out. The first is that the Durban press conference was really called for a single purpose: To crap out Malema publicly. That in itself is unique. We can’t remember Mbeki ever holding a special press conference to say publicly that the ANC Youth League was wrong. And remember back when Fikile Mbalula, then the League’s leader, was pissing Mbeki off so much that the enmity between the two makes the current Malema/Mantashe feud look like a picnic.
Second, it’s the phrase “totally alien to the culture of the ANC” that really gives this juice. What he’s really saying is, “You don’t belong here if you’re going to keep on talking like this.” Zuma is one of the best historians of the ANC around and he’s using that to crap on Malema from a dizzy historical height. He’s also saying, “I’m the boss. You’re not. Now get back in your box.”
While Zuma started off with comments about press freedom and the fiasco around BBC journalist, Jonah Fisher, it’s probably the Zimbabwe issue that really got his goat. As we’ve speculated before, we think Malema’s trip to Zimbabwe at the invitation of the Zanu-PF Youth, was really a Machiavellian ploy by Mugabe to weaken Zuma’s position and, by proxy, force him to change his stance on Zim. Any politician would be furious at being hollowed out from the inside of his very own organisation the way Malema has. So Zuma really has no choice but to take action. This way, he’s warned Malema that he could take more serious action against him.
Photo: Julius Malema speaks to the media at the ANC headquarters in Johannesburg April 8, 2010. The firebrand youth leader of South Africa’s ruling party made clear he would not be hushed on Thursday, demanding Zimbabwe-style land seizures from white farmers and promising to keep singing a controversial song. REUTERS/Peter Andrews
Now, many would feel, with justification, that Malema should already have been suspended from the ANC, and be facing some kind of disciplinary procedure. After all, it’s the second time in a week that he’s had a dressing down, considering he very likely had one earlier this week with Mantashe and Zuma. His immediate reaction was to call a press conference and defy them again. Which is what this is also about.
But there’s a lot of history to consider. Within ANC lore, one of the better stories older members tell is about how two young militant firebrands took the Youth League out of its then moribund state, irritated the then ANC leaders, and eventually, through a long and difficult process, won the League its autonomy. Technically speaking, the ANC, and Zuma, can’t order the Youth League to do anything. But they can discipline its members, as ordinary members of the ANC. However, when you consider that the fight over its autonomy was won by two men named Sisulu and Mandela, any ANC leader now is going to tread very carefully indeed.
Zuma’s also had plenty to say about media freedom. He’s done it before and he knows it will play well. But we’re beginning to wonder, after a long period of cynicism, if he actually believes in it after all. He hasn’t put a foot wrong in this area since becoming president, and he really seems to be protecting the media against the Youth League. Odd, when you think about it.
The question now is what will happen next? Does this mean Malema will face some kind of disciplinary process? Possibly. Remember, the ANC doesn’t like to suspend or expel members. Remember, too how it didn’t expel anyone who was campaigning pretty openly for Cope when it was launched. Traditionally, it tries to “reform” people and will go to great lengths to do that. But what happens to Malema will now depend on the “young lion” himself. He could put out an apologetic statement (which we expect him to do). That may not be enough. He may have to do it for the cameras. (Oh, stop salivating!) But it would be a sight to behold wouldn’t it – Malema eating humble pie. We bet everyone would take that live and YouTube’s servers would strain afterwards.
That might be enough to save him for now.
But he could also just release the usual statement, carry a couple of bombastic soundbites of defiance, remind everybody how much he fought against apartheid and its agents (don’t fact-check him on that) and then just carry on as normal.
This time, he’s finally crossed a line. And Zuma, like any other politician, doesn’t like it when a young whippersnapper tries to run the country instead of him. So, if he does it again, particularly on Zimbabwe, there could well be a smart smack, bang and wallop. A disciplinary hearing, with Kgalema Motlanthe (who else?) in the chair. Or worse for Malema, possibly even Mantashe. (And wouldn’t he enjoy getting rid of this irritation in the name of the entire organisation?)
All of this is even worse news for someone else – Fikile Mbalula. On no planet in this solar system could he imagine his campaign to unseat Mantashe is going well. It’s a disaster. He’ll be lucky if he stays in government at this rate.
This is turning into a nightmare week for Malema. But it could be just beginning. The Limpopo branch of the league is holding its conference this weekend. And already there are indications people opposed to Malema could hold the strong cards there. And any politician with experience knows, if you lose your home base, you are in a real trouble. (There are also, still unconfirmed rumours of a scuffle erupting at the ANCYL Limpopo conference at the time of publishing this story – Ed)
All in all, Malema has no-one to blame but himself. You cannot rise too fast in this country, and you cannot piss off the wrong people. And, in this case, those people are Jacob Zuma and Gwede Mantashe.
By Stephen Grootes
(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)
Main photo: Reuters