Analysis: Julius Malema and the new definition of hot water

By Stephen Grootes 24 July 2011

On Sunday, City Press published details of a trust controlled by Julius Malema, allegedly as a conduit to funnel money from businessmen to himself. In return they get padded tenders. Basically, the buck stops with you, the taxpayer. While none of this has been proved yet, and Malema could be innocent, this could also be the start of his great unravelling. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Well, well, well. Is this the beginning of Malema’s end? We never expected his final battle to be fought on the playing fields of Eton, but perhaps it will be decided on the legalities of family trusts.

Clearly Julius Malema is finding it a little hard doing business under the counter (Lawyers note: If that is what he is doing). Whenever more than one person is involved, it is very easy to be double-crossed. CityPress is keeping the identity of its source secret for now. While we’d love to know who it is, the important point is that, as we so confidently claimed last week, Malema must have started using cash. City Press found a way to link cash, government tenders and Malema in the same headline. Well done to the paper – it couldn’t have been easy. The way it did it was to approach the issue from the other side. Malema said he wasn’t going to tell anybody anything because “It’s none of your business”, so asking him again wasn’t gonna work. Instead, City Press found a businessman who had been making payments. And in the process, it uncovered this little trust Malema had forgotten to mention when he said “my accounts are clean”.

Oh dear.

It’s called the Ratangang Family Trust, and it’s named after Malema’s five-year-old son, a nice touch. According to the paper, the way it works is that, if businessmen want a tender, they speak to Malema. He tells them how much money he wants (basically around a third of the profits), they put the money into the trust’s account and, presto, they get the tender. And even an SMS with the account information for the money to be deposited and another one telling them the money’s been received. This last little bit is one of those small details that really gives the story juice – makes it all believable, credible. 

Malema himself has been quiet on all of this so far. Last week he said he’d changed his cellphone number (again) to stop being pestered by journalists all the time. Which means the League’s other leaders, those who still answer their phones that is, are the ones facing the music now. Well, blasting back would be more appropriate. F-F-Floyd Shivambu’s phone has also joined the ranks of those that are not answered any more. However, the League’s new secretary general, Sindiso Magaqa (hand-picked by Malema at the League’s conference this year) has had a few choice words to say.

He told Eyewitness News, when asked whether Malema was receiving money from government tenders, “That is none of your business, it’s a private matter, it’s none of your business, it’s none of your business”. Bear in mind, that usually the answer to a “for the record question” is “no”. So the League’s strategy is to just shout and move on. It is indeed now an organisation in Malema’s own image.

Now, to what all of this means.

Clearly this matters to Malema, otherwise he wouldn’t have gone to the South Gauteng high court on Saturday in a bid to stop City Press from publishing the story. There he bumped into Judge Colin Lamont, who is still considering the decision of his hate speech trial – simply a coincidence. But Lamont did make a very salient point when he said, in his decisions to refuse Malema’s application, that Malema could have answered questions properly and had been fairly treated. He even pointed out that Malema had chosen to deal with the questions posed by City Press in a superficial manner.

But most important is the finding that it was in the public interest for the paper to publish its story, which could be the starting point of the demolition of Malema’s claim that he doesn’t have to explain his lifestyle because he’s “not an elected official”. It seems, from Lamont’s ruling, that Malema is considered a “public figure” and thus cannot claim the full privacy a genuinely private individual (i.e. most of us) would enjoy. This could turn out to be another very unpleasant long-term inconvenience for Malema in this story.
But whatever the truth, politics are about perceptions: What is the import of all of this?

Firstly, it allows Malema’s enemies to pick up a still-smoking gun and keep aiming. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything in SA circumstances. In “normal” political systems, someone who claims to be clean and poor, but is shown to be dirty and rich, would invariably lose votes and end up fading into obscurity.

That is not necessarily what will happen in our still-very-nascent democracy. That causality, or whatever you would like to call it, is still very broken. In a country ruled by identity politics, Malema has been such a polarising figure that, while this will give succour to his enemies, it will also harden attitudes among his supporters. He will claim the usual mix of media bias, political conspiracy and racism. And remember, none of that needs to be true, he just needs to keep claiming it. He will keep saying it’s just rich whites trying to stop “this African child” from being rich. It’ll be nonsense, but that’s never stopped him before.

However, there is likely to be a group of ANC people, members, delegates at various conferences perhaps, who are wavering on the Malema issue. They may not like President Jacob Zuma particularly much, or feel that Gwede Mantashe is not the best thing since Kgalema Motlanthe, and so far have been easy pickings for Malema (and, of course, Fikile Mbalula, who, by proxy, has his share of interest in the story). That “soft” support could come to an end. Especially if Malema’s enemies use this information wisely.

Malema’s “hard” enemies are already demanding answers; Cosatu is already demanding that ‘the allegations be properly investigated’. From outside the Alliance, Afri-Forum has already ‘submitted a charge of corruption against Julius Malema’.

The real game changer though would be a prosecution for corruption. Again, in the already mentioned “normal democracy” that would be tickets. But after Zuma’s strange path to power, it would probably just mean that Malema would try to turn the entire case into yet another trial of the justice system itself, probably not unsuccessfully, although the results of that would be difficult to predict. While the evidence might be strong, we all know that’s not what it would be about. And there would be a battle royale between Malema’s supporters and his enemies for the soul of National Prosecutions boss Menzi Simelane.

All of this, though, lies in the future. For now, it is likely that the discourse will be dominated by more on this particular issue. Malema will attempt to make much hay out of the fact City Press hasn’t, for obvious reasons, named its sources. Perhaps more sources will emerge, perhaps they’ll all go into hiding. Perhaps one of Malema’s inner circle will have a falling out and start singing. If it’s happened to Murdoch, it can happen to Malema too.

But for now, a final image for this story. Mantashe, in one of the upper storeys of Luthuli House, with a copy of City Press dated 24 July open on his lap. Chuckling. DM

Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Photo: Daily Maverick.


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