There seems to the very real glimmer of movement within the ANC directly opposing nationalisation, which in turn means opposition to Julius Malema. It may appear a little fragmented at the moment, but many critical political changes began in the same way. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
The argument around nationalisation has been going on for so long you sometimes wonder if it was always thus. In a way, it has been, considering the fact that Nelson Mandela himself said the mines would be nationalised in his first speech after being released from Pollsmoor. And some little party called the Purified National Party had the same thoughts when it came into power back in 1947. But the debate as we currently know it is beginning to change. Part of this is because business, and particularly the Chamber of Mines has found its voice, but it is also because other people are beginning to speak up. However, in the end it is really all about Julius Malema. And he may have over-stepped the mark.
It’s been a tough week or two for Malema. He’s been on the back foot ever since that City Press article that may or may not turn out to be the smoking gun about his finances. And because the argument about nationalisation tends to wax and wane with his own fortunes, the debate itself has changed. Over the last week or so two cabinet ministers (three if you count Blade Nzimande, wearing his SACP hat) have spoken out about it. And so has Mathews Phosa – we’ll come to him in a moment, because it deserves a whole section on its own.
But first the ministers. In a way it was to be expected that minerals minister Susan Shabangu and public enterprises’ Malusi Gigaba who would come out against Malema. Shabangu must have no love for the lion cub, as all he does is put her in awkward positions in every meeting she has with miners. And because she may still not know how the debate within the ANC will turn out, she has to tread carefully around it. So her comment this week that this debate was not being handled properly is a little bit of code for her frustration as well as a new-found self-confidence.
Gigaba is slightly different. He is an ANC Youth League graduate, a former leader who was very much in the fold of Thabo Mbeki. But there’s no love lost between Gigaba and Fikile Mbalula, who took over from him as Youth League boss.
But even he must have felt the time for him to act was now. Sure, he was speaking to the American Chamber of Commerce on Monday when he was asked the “N” question. But he didn’t have to let slip the wonderful titbit that, during the cabinet lekgotla in which nothing was decided last week, a note had been passed around that opposed “expropriation without comprehension”. It’s a wonderful way of making a point, isn’t it? Because it’s difficult to point to Gigaba and say you shouldn’t have done that, when all he did was tell an anecdote.
Now back to Phosa. His role in all this is far more interesting. He’s seen by many as a supporter of Malema. When us political hacks are asked who’s backing Malema, he’s the one name we could give with confidence. In 2010, he even represented Malema, acting as his attorney, during the ANC’s disciplinary inquiry. It was seen at the time as a way of showing his displeasure with President Jacob Zuma. More to the point, keeping Malema in the ANC was also a way for Phosa to keep what could be the biggest weapon he has against Zuma in action. All of this, of course, is predicated on the assumption that Phosa might be an ambitious man.
The other real headache Malema has is that the support he seems to have been getting from Tokyo Sexwale could be softening. Last month Sexwale criticised Malema’s plans to expropriate land without compensation. It was during a press conference about housing, but Sexwale’s point was that land on its own is useless, you need buildings and infrastructure. It was gentle, but the criticism was most definitely there.
So what is really happening? Is Malema no longer useful to those to whom he was most definitely useful? Or is the pressure beginning to build so the people are beginning to distance themselves from him, just in case he sinks. All of the above are possible.
The timing of all of this matters. Malema is under stress and he’s made a mistake. His decision to give his critics something else to worry about by trying to attack Botswana was the kind of stupid thing that happens when a young person is under pressure. The ANC couldn’t let it slide, mainly because foreign policy is the one thing about which they will not let an internal body criticise them. It’s just too embarrassing for them to have that happen. So Monday’s statement which criticised the League for being “thoughtless” and “embarrassing” probably had the backing of the party’s national working committee. Which means Phosa, but not Sexwale – although if given the chance he would probably have signed off on it as well.
The other dynamic that could be at play is that one group, in this case the NWC, has come out against him at the same time as one of his enemies in Gigaba was launching an attack of his own. This probably emboldened Shabangu. So the question is, could this be some sort of tipping point? If Shabangu is seen to come out against Malema and survives, could someone else do the same, and then someone else, until the momentum builds properly?
Possibly. Already ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe has entered the fray again, calling on the League not to personalise the Botswana issue and make it all about the ANC’s spokesman Jackson Mthembu. In a statement released on Wednesday he goes even further, suggesting the League has tried to “undermine the leadership of the ANC on a number of occasions”. Just the way that is written tells you that it was from Mantashe personally. In other words, he too realises this could be the moment to jump on Malema.
Other people may follow, or they may not. But if they are going to do so, they must do it soon, because he will start to regroup. And if he does regroup, he’ll take control of the nationalisation shouting match once again. But if he goes, the entire debate will disappear with him. DM
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Grootes is an EWN reporter.
Photo: Daily Maverick
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