The ANC/Youth League stand-off is all about the timing of power play

By Stephen Grootes 10 August 2011

As we all know, tensions have been rising between those who nominally run the continent's “most successful liberation movement” and those who nowadays claim to be the revolutionary vanguard. Or in Hollywood/Biblical terms, it's the "Battle of Jacob and Julius". STEPHEN GROOTES wades in, all with a bold and perhaps appropriate use of the term “Zuma's Rubicon”.

On Monday a meeting between the ANC’s top brass, i.e. Jacob Zuma, Kgalema Motlanthe, Gwede Mantashe, Mathews Phosa, Thandi Modise and Baleka Mbete, and the new leaders of the ANC Youth League was postponed. Technically it was an induction session, a getting to know you coffee-and-carrot-cake for the new League leaders. But we all know it was really going to be about whether the ANC would discipline the League for its Botswana comments. We now all know it was postponed, kicked into corner. But are we getting closer to Zuma’s crossing of the Rubicon? Of that glorious technicolour moment when Malema actually gets the music, loud, blaring and in his face. Because it would appear Zuma is up to something, and it is not only about neutralising Malema.

Nowadays, we’ve become so used to headlines blaring “D-day for Malema” we tend to ignore them. So it wasn’t surprising that the main event of the latest D-day was put off.  Zuma tends to duck these things. Or so we’ve come to expect. But look a little closer at the statement put out by the ANC on this issue, and there is indeed the phrase “disciplinary action”. This could just be bluster, smoke in the cannon as it were to tell an opposing fleet that he is indeed here. Or it could be a real shot across the bows.

Zuma is currently in a position where he could use a little grapeshot to bring down the rigging, where he should actually use some live ammunition. Pressure has been mounting on several fronts, with several tricky problems. He doesn’t want to act on Bheki Cele just yet, a cabinet reshuffle would be a pain, while Malema is more of an internal and genuinely annoying biological pain towards his rear. A little bit of action on that front would help everyone forget the other problems.

But that’s not the real reason the Zuma/Mantashe axis might like to move now. You’ll have heard it all before, but we all know there are serious, senior leaders who are supporting Malema. Some of them are indeed in the upper echelons of the ANC. Even in the top six. Which means the real political action of the day was probably in that meeting the ANC’s top six (named above) held before deciding to hold off the meeting with the League. It was there that the relative power of those individuals was brought to bear.

Perhaps the upshot of that meeting was that Phosa was able to defend Malema again. But it must also be remembered that it would be in the interests of Zuma and Mantashe to force Malema’s hand to smoke out his supporters. It would now suit the Zuma/Mantashe interests to force Malema into a situation in which his supporters would have to decide whether they would publicly back him or not. Would Phosa act as his attorney in this disciplinary hearing like he did the last time. If he did, his hand would have been forced. If he doesn’t he runs the risk of pissing off Malema to the point where he could suddenly turn. And while any political lion is dangerous, a wounded young lion must be particularly unpredictable.

If it was done with deft and tactical nous (i.e. if Mantashe has enough space in which to have a free hand), perhaps Malema could be forced back into the main pride, behind Zuma. If he were left with no champions, if no one was prepared to back him anymore, he would have no choice but to lick his wounds and publicly declare that “Zuma was now the best leader the ANC had ever had”. Even better than his old dear friend, Thabo Mbeki.

A weakened, chastened Malema would be of great benefit to Zuma. It would mean he has a wonderful weapon with which to threaten opponents. Would you want to cross the only guy who could ever subdue Malema? At the same time it would mean those who were backing Malema would suddenly be robbed of the green kryptonite they’ve been using to weaken Zuma for the last two years or so.

At the same time Zuma and Mantashe are surely watching these stories about Malema and his lifestyle with more than academic interest. It would be helpful for them to move now, to force him into a position in which he has to fight on many fronts. So what Monday’s statement could really be is a message that they have the will to actually act. They are saying, “Look Julius, life is tough for you at the moment, and we can make it tougher”.

But it might just be part of a longer-term game. Malema is young, the more pressure he get, the more mistakes he’ll make. So all of this could just be about pushing him into the naughty corner for a little while, because a sulking Julius is one that is not best able to think and express himself clearly. If this is all about Malema’s supporters, then it could be useful to keep him neutralised, but not completely off the table. Because it might be fun to turn him later. We’ve suggested before that the best time to really turn the screws would be closer to next year’s Mangaung conference. Because if you do it right, you will get rid of him and dunk the person he’s backing really in it. But that can be more dangerous as well. After next year’s policy conference, it would be difficult to move against anyone for fear of being seen to be using the power of incumbency. The ANC doesn’t much like that.

So the timing of any move against Malema and the people who back him has to be carefully considered. There’s a reason why Zuma and Mantashe haven’t moved yet, why this current political holding pattern has held for so long. That reason could be the simple fact that is hasn’t suited them to move yet. We may be getting to a point where that reason no longer exists. DM



Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Photo: Daily Maverick.


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