The ANC Youth League goes into this week's national general council meeting split on one defining issue - Julius Malema. More than any other organisation in the country, it has become not much more than a placeholder for its leader's oversized personality.
Through his own actions and particularly his own words, he has been the defining political phenomenon of 2010. For good or ill, he has come to typify the League, and along with it, middle-class fears. Think about any big news story of the last 12 months, and he’s been right in the middle of it. From Caster Semenya to Eskom to Eugene Terre’blanche, he’s been involved, usually stoking things up and, predictably, turning every issue into a Malema-discussion.
Probably never before has the League come to be so dominated by its current leader. You’re either for him or against him. You either booed him as he arrived in Grahamstown, or you sang his praises and think he should be the next president. Even President Zuma hasn’t been immune. From suggesting he would be a good person to lead to the country, to actually instituting disciplinary charges again him, he has swung the Malema pendulum as wildly as the most of the ANC.
But the Malema effect on the League has been chaotic and most damaging. The sheer force of Malema’s personality, and the choices he has made, and, of course, his wild and shooting-from-the-hip statements have stoked opposition, resentment and a very real sense of instability within the League. While that doesn’t mean his opponents are likely to unseat him anytime soon, they have managed to force him to use any means, foul or fair, to hold on to power. The events in Eastern Cape, by far the biggest of the League’s provincial branches, are testament to that, where Malema had to find a way to make sure his candidate won that election so he could keep his grip on things. In the end he prevailed it seems by again controlling the accreditation process and making sure delegates opposed to him weren’t registered.
When you consider the circumstances of Malema’s election as leader, bare bums, delayed conferences, it’s pretty fair to predict that this NGC won’t be plain sailing. It’s the biggest gathering since the last conference (the first, including his election, was in Bloemfontein, the conference had to be abandoned and was then held at Nasrec) which means it’s also the best opportunity for his opponents to meet and plot and plan.
For now they’re in the minority. Malema seems to have control of five provinces. But in places like Gauteng, he and his lieutenants have received a bloody nose. That could matter later as one of these could become the springboard of a real rebellion against his leadership. This won’t be the week for that, but it could become part of the planning for a later bid.
To force a vote on leadership at an NGC you need a two-thirds majority of delegates. To an extent Malema has been able to control the process of sending delegates so he’s probably feeling pretty safe. But the opportunity for embarrassment is here. He was booed in Eastern Cape and that could happen again.
When Mbeki and Zuma were involved in their under-the-radar battle for the soul of the ANC, they used a cunning tactic when they had to appear at rallies. To make sure neither was booed or cheered more than the other, they would arrive and leave together. They would walk around the stadium together. Malema may want to take a leaf out of their books when it comes to his dealings with his deputy Andile Lungisa, who does appear to have quite a bit of support.
Intriguingly, Lungisa is scheduled to chair the first part of this NGC, while Malema will do the blockbuster speech at the end. One would expect that’s part of careful political management, rather than the start of an unfortunate incident. If recent ANC-related events are anything to go by, there is a strong chance that the abiding image and sound of this gathering will be of a massive hall with hundreds of delegates booing one leader and his supporters, and that person and his crowd shouting back. It’s not a far stretch from booing and shouting to pushing and shoving and whatever comes next. Perhaps that’s why there were already 50 police officers outside the registration venue.
It seems very likely the League will adopt a resolution this week to support Fikile Mbalula in his quest to unseat Gwede Mantashe as ANC secretary general. More daringly, there is also a hint that the League may vote to call for “inter-generational change” in the ANC’s leadership, which would be very bad news for President Jacob Zuma.
The League likes to claim it’s a king-maker in ANC politics. It’s not the force it was just post-Polokwane. But it still has the power to define part of the political agenda. The next few days will matter, but there’ll have to be readings of tea-leaves to work out their exact impact.
By Stephen Grootes
(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)
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