The mayhem, dissing of party leaders and picture-burning by, shall we be generous and call them agent provocateurs posing as ANC Youth League members, were nothing new – at least not to those of us who witnessed the run-up to Polokwane four years ago. By CARIEN DU PLESSIS
Images of barbed wire, young people singing defiant songs about individual leaders and burning a picture of the president on the sidelines of some kind of trial – these were the familiar but no less shocking images that greeted South Africans who saw what happened outside Luthuli House in Johannesburg on Tuesday.
It was similar to the defiance against former president Thabo Mbeki, except this time the songs were against President Jacob Zuma – five years ago Mbeki was at the receiving end of the crowd’s wrath.
Five years ago there was also a clear substitute – Zuma of course – for the leader to be ousted, but this week there was none. Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe was there in the subtext (the League wants him for president, but he is understandably hesitant to declare his position on this), and so was sports minister Fikile Mbalula, who the League wants in the ANC’s secretary-general position. But the hero-worship of the day was reserved for the man under fire, ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema. In that sense he was a proxy kind of hero.
Zuma and his ANC officials have two weeks ago attempted to regain a firm grip on party discipline by announcing disciplinary steps against the young firebrand and five of his fellow leaders.
On Tuesday Malema, like Zuma a few years ago, tried to project himself on the moral high ground as the messiah who holds in his hand the party’s discipline that the ANC’s officials – in the League’s opinion – pretended to want to enforce.
Malema was let out of his disciplinary for long enough to step onto Beyers Naude Square near Luthuli House to address the thousand or so supporters that had gathered there.
The crowds ceased to be violent when he emerged from underneath the half-opened garage door of Luthuli House parking’s lot with other Youth League leaders like treasurer Pule Mabe by his side.
Watch: Pro-Malema protesters confront police
He passed in front of a crowd where moments before even police in riot gear dared not go as empty beer bottles, stones and half-bricks rained down onto that stretch of President Street, where a police nyala was parked. When they saw him, the crowd was as tame as lambs.
And then he raged against the ill-discipline and asked the crowds to behave themselves.
He started by telling them not to burn “Zuma’s face” or ANC flags, and continued: “We know you are disciplined. Please don’t be provoked by agent provocateurs,” but to report them to the police.
“The police is not your enemy. These are the people employed to protect you,” he said.
“You must know who is the enemy,” he told them, with the crowd chanting: “Zuma, Zuma.”
Perhaps mindful of the damage done to the party, Malema reminded them “Luthuli House is a revolutionary house, and it remains our house. We can’t have a fight with Luthuli House”.
Surprisingly he also asked supporters to be kind to the media and not attack journalists, because “they are only messengers” and any negative publicity would cause the League to lose public sympathy.
This is one of very, very few instances where Malema had ever admitted to caring about such.
This new culture of resistance by one ANC faction against the incumbent leaders started roughly in 2005, shortly after Zuma’s former financial adviser Schabir Shaik was convicted of fraud and corruption involving Zuma. Mbeki fired Zuma as deputy president and the ANC’s national working committee suspended him as party deputy president.
Watch: Julius Malema speaks after Joburg protests
Many in the ANC thought the decision unfair and it was shortly after overturned by the national general council, the highest decision-making body of the ANC between conferences.
Still, even though the mood at this gathering in midwinter Pretoria was defiant, it was still orderly.
The real shocker came only the next year, when Zuma was charged with the rape of a friend’s daughter. His supporters were initially hesitant, but by the time the judge delivered the not guilty verdict in 2006, sangomas were burning good luck herbs, imphepho, outside the court. Later when Zuma was charged with corruption, pictures of Mbeki were burnt by Zuma’s supporters.
The party was so divided, it couldn’t move to take steps against any of these people.
By the time Polokwane came, a culture of open defiance and booing of leaders was established, to such an extent that Zuma’s supporters took over the running of the conference by booing then ANC chairman Mosiuoa Lekota off stage.
Watch: Youth League’s intimidation tactics in Polokwane, 2007
Other leaders were similarly harassed, with Zuma’s supporters making a rolling motion with their hands like one would signal a soccer substitution – a tactic also used against Mbeki’s trusted but somewhat unpopular friend, Essop Pahad.
If journalists called only one thing correct at the time, it was that the genie of ill-discipline was out of the bottle and it would be difficult to contain it again.
No action was ever taken against those who erred in the run-up to Polokwane, mostly because the new leadership had benefitted from the ill-discipline and it would have been two-faced to punish their supporters.
Malema wasn’t near the driving seat of the ANC Youth League then, but the organisation, under Mbalula’s leadership, spearheaded Zuma’s campaign.
Mbalula’s hand can also be seen in the League’s unruliness of late, and seeing that he benefits from their campaigns, it’s likely that he is behind this campaign too.
Malema’s own touch, as a “reckless radical” (as one commentator described him), is visible in this campaign, which has taken on an anarchic flavour as a result.
The ANC last week, for the first time, admitted that it had erred by disregarding discipline before 2007, and that it is now picking the bitter fruits of that time. It might regrettably be too late for the party to get out of this jam without suffering serious and irreparable damage. DM
"Joyfully to the breeze royal Odysseus spread his sail and with his rudder skillfully he steered." ~ Homer