Analysis: Malema’s pedal to the NUM’s metal

By Stephen Grootes 6 October 2010

It’s been some time since we saw some sanity from the ANC Youth League, but even so the events of the last few days seem to show that Julius Malema’s prime goal at the moment is to amass as many enemies as possible. Tough, determined enemies, also known as National Union of Mineworkers. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

In what seems to be a genuine attempt to either just be an all-round pain in the neck (otherwise known as Julius being Julius) or to try to find out who really supports whom, he’s decided to take on the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). It is difficult to think of a tougher, hardier foe.

The latest pearl in the string started when the NUM did what a union is supposed to do, protect its workers and their jobs. When Malema went in front of the cameras and microphones to say he’ll close down mines if they don’t support his particular agenda, if you’re a union leader you have to condemn it. To do anything else would be stupid and a dereliction of your duty. Malema probably just got carried away during his “nationalisation rally” in Limpopo over the weekend, but that’s what happens when you don’t stop to learn the lessons of the last two weeks. No matter. The NUM reacted, and gave it horns.

It told the League it would not accept this. In what turned out to be a fairly carefully chosen set of words (by the standards of the League anyway) it told the ANC it refused to be “blackmailed, indoctrinated and manipulated by juveniles”. Notice the very soft hint towards what’s become a more open secret than previously, the left’s claim that the League is not engaging in the nationalisation argument for entirely pure motives.

The League, of course, has hit back with a suggestion that it will open branches around mines, because the NUM has a “conservative” leadership. The NUM suggests that anyone who wants to stop mines operating should just come along and try. (We know, you’re savouring that image, aren’t you?)

Malema is taking on royal game here. The NUM is really where the union movement that led to the formation of Cosatu started. Its leaders are liberation royalty, from Cyril Ramaphosa onwards, these are the people who really matter in ANC politics. When the NUM asks the ANC to rein in the League, it’s really asking its former boss, Gwede Mantashe. There is something about the unity of an organisation formed by a group of people who literally live underground. They learn teamwork in a way no other union can match. They are better organised than just about anybody else. We’re talking about an organisation that at any one time can boast to have more than a thousand kids in good schools and tertiary institutions, paid for by the union. They understand business and how to make it work. In short, if ever there was a union that has understood capitalism and how to live with it while improving the lot of its members and society in general, it’s the NUM.

This may be what Malema is trying to drive at, by suggesting its leadership is “conservative” he may be trying to claim the union is not part of the revolution.

Except that is just so untrue, it’ll be laughed at.

What Malema has really done is work out a way to make himself even more enemies. The person he will have really ticked off, who certainly will have approved the final NUM statement on this, will have been its general secretary Frans Baleni. When Zwelinzima Vavi steps down from Cosatu in 2012, Baleni will be one of the front-runners to take over. And if he doesn’t, as the leader of the largest Cosatu affiliate, he sure as dammit will have a say in who does. In short, he’s going to be influential for a long time.

So if Malema stays on as League leader (and yes, we really do think he will, but as always our political calculations are subject to change with the facts, which may change fast), he’s setting himself up for a long period of antagonism with the union movement in general and the NUM in particular.

So then, why do it? Is it possible that Malema is now so deep in political hock to those pushing him on the nationalisation issue (if that’s the case) that he has no option, but to keep diving straight in? Or could it just be that he knows no other option and no other way. Or is it really that Malema actually believes the only things that matter for the future of South Africa are, to crudely paraphrase Tony Blair, nationalisation, nationalisation and nationalisation?

It’s possibly a mixture of all the above. What we do know is that Malema is ready to risk everything on this one issue. In the past he was more than a one-trick pony. Now he almost certainly sees nationalisation as one issue all others refract into, where he can still create a wedge and push him back into the centre of the movement. For him it is probably all that matters at the moment. And that, of course, means he’ll have to take more risks, which in itself is probably a pretty stupid thing to do post-NGC.

Playing against a bunch of guys who have impeccable revolutionary credentials, but understand capitalism pretty well, will never be easy. And even if Malema somehow eventually wins, a Pyrrhic victory that would certainly be. DM

Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Photo: African National Congress Youth League leader Julius Malema dances as South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma opens the National General Council of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), in Durban, September 20, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings


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