Analysis: Malema backlash? Probably not.

By Stephen Grootes 25 August 2011

In all the talk, wailing and general scratching of heads around the decision by the ANC to charge Julius Malema & Co, there’s been much concern about whether this is the right decision in long term. In other words, even if the President Jacob Zuma-Gwede Mantashe axis wins this round, could it lead to a chaotic backlash? What would happen if Malema is able to actually win out, even if it takes an ANC electoral cycle. In The Times newspaper on Wednesday, its political editor S’Thembiso Msomi suggested this could actually see Malema becoming the new “victim” within the ANC. It’s a point worth considering. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Msomi is a man who knows his politics better than just about anyone. He’s connected, and at the same time, is someone blessed with an elephantine memory and the ability to see things as they are, not what they look like. So when he suggests, quite strongly, that actually Malema will turn the charges against him into a campaigning mechanism of his own, we have to weigh it up carefully. At the same time, I myself have suggested that there is nothing Malema would like better than a corruption trial. If you remember, Zuma himself faced corruption charges, which he used to great effect against Thabo Mbeki, eventually winning the war.

But after some more thought, I think there are problems with this thesis.

The first place to start is that Malema is not Zuma. When Zuma was charged, he already had a long track record in the ANC. He’d been on Robben Island, been the Chair of the ANC in the mid-90’s, then deputy leader, and then Deputy President of South Africa. He had actually governed, or served, if you prefer. Malema has not. All he has up until now, is a track record of rhetoric. His track record is also hugely controversial. Zuma’s was not.  Yes, really.  Within the ANC, Zuma was someone who everyone knew, a favoured son for a long time, who had always delivered. And of course there was also an element of his popularity in KwaZulu Natal.

Now look at Malema. No matter how this disciplinary hearing goes, he will always be the first ANC Youth League leader to have faced that panel twice.  Takes some doing, that. His power base is not limited to, but is focused in, Limpopo, a much smaller province in ANC terms than KZN. Then we have to examine his allies. Fikile Mbalula, some others. Not half of the NEC, as Zuma could claim in 2005.

But there’s a more fascinating side to this. Zuma won the day not just because he was charged, but also because of who his enemy was. Without Thabo Mbeki, we would never have had Zuma as president now. Now sure, it’s easy for Malema to claim, as he no doubt will, that he’s the victim of a political conspiracy – look at the Hawks and SARS circling around him. But it’s not quite the same thing. There’s no smoking gun linking those probes to Zuma. There is also the fact that much of the anger directed at Mbeki was not really about the political conspiracy at all. It was about the fact that he was being seen as a dictator, rather than a democrat that really led to his downfall.

This led to decisions by Cosatu and the SACP to back Zuma. For them, it was really about de-throning Mbeki, than about who would lead after, a fact Cosatu has made plain over the last year or so. And while I have been guilty of ripping off the SACP from time to time, these two members of the Alliance together are still very important to anyone’s hopes of achieving a final, if not necessarily lasting victory.

And that leads us to the ANC Youth League itself. There is something here that hasn’t quite been discussed much. If, after the charging of the League’s other four top leaders on Wednesday, they are convicted, what then for the League? Presumably, if they’re suspended or chucked out, the ANC will have to start again. And whoever is running it when Malema gets going again, will not be too keen on him coming back. It would be the worst possible thing for anyone who takes over the battered League.

We also have to examine the difference between the two men’s characters. I have expressed my admiration for Malema’s political skills before. It’s quite unheard of for someone to narrowly win a three-horse race in 2008 for the League’s leadership, and then to have the organisation appear completely and utterly under his thumb a mere three years later. It’s that organisation of the branches that could make him so powerful. But Zuma had far more experience. He also had strong allies with great organisational skills. And the League’s secretary-general (for now) Sindiso Magaqa is no Gwede Mantashe. Really, trust me on this one.

The final aspect, is that people now know the “victim” tactic. It was a relatively new thing when Zuma used it to such great effect. Now, if Malema tries to use that card, you will have the people who used it before just watching for you to pick it up. They’ll blow the whistle, shout and scream. And that could be a vital diference.

But all of this doesn’t mean that Malema is out for the count just yet. It doesn’t mean that he won’t be able to use victimhood to his own ends. He will certainly use race in a way that Zuma didn’t really touch on. That in itself could make it a much more powerful card than it was. Msomi is absolutely right to bring this to our attention, because we need to be aware of the possible tactics that Malema may use. Just as he is trying to make us aware of the tactics being used against him. After all, one of the biggest on-going discussions within the ANC is about just that. Strategy, and tactics. DM


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