Politics

Desperately seeking Julius: a showman without a show

By Stephen Grootes 14 September 2011

The Julius Malema Disciplinary Hearings (the capitals are deliberate) have gone from the planned “twenty-twenty bang-bang, you're out” affairs they were supposed to be to a Wagnerian five-day saga. In other words, it's going to take a long time. The eventual length of these proceedings will have implications for all the political figures involved. And possibly for the outcome as well. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

When the ANC’s top officials first charged Malema with “sowing division” and bringing the name of the party “into disrepute”, it looked like the work of a master planner. The charges were proffered just before a national executive committee meeting that then focused on discipline. But President Jacob Zuma and ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe had also ensured that as the charges were now in play, the NEC couldn’t formally discuss them because they were now only a matter for the national disciplinary committee. The fact that Zuma and Mantashe followed up with other charges for Malema and the league’s leaders seemed to strengthen the impression that Malema was in deep trouble.

Instead what’s happened is that Malema, aided by some really good legal footwork by Dali Mpofu, has used the later charges to delay the main action, the hearing on the charges against him.

It was four weeks ago that Malema was first charged. It was two weeks ago that his hearing was due to begin, a fact underlined by his supporters to such violent effect. And by Tuesday, the panel has only heard the case against league secretary-general Sindiso Magaqa and it’s spokesman Floyd Shivambu. It still has to rule on the case of Malema and all of the league’s leaders for disrupting a meeting.

These developments have several affects. Firstly, the longer this goes on, the more the political will of everyone involved is sapped. Essentially, Malema is testing the will and staying power of Zuma, Mantashe, and the panel itself. People lose interest. Other things happen that become priorities, especially if you’re the President. But if you’re Malema, your only priority is survival, and thus nothing saps your will.

This would usually mean that his position would strengthen over time. As it is often in politics, battles are won by those who want to win them the most. Will matters. As a result, the longer this goes on, the greater his chances of some kind of political settlement. Especially when you consider that Zuma has a fairly bad track record of creating political embarrassments for himself. So Malema basically drags it out, hoping he’ll win in some way that he can’t quite see now.

But at the same time, he is being starved of political oxygen. For Malema to survive, he has to be seen in public. His supporters need to hear him. A populist demagogue cannot be too far from the population. He loses his touch. And for Malema, this is particularly important. He’s been one of the most effective politicians in modern South Africa. But for him to remain that, a personal speech in public is particularly important. One can’t help but wonder why on earth he wasn’t in court on Monday for his hate-speech judgment. Surely, surely, that would be a chance for him to shine, to be the face of the struggle, the person who actually represents the “real ANC”. Instead, in a rare display of tactical error, he seemed to duck it.

Then we have speech on Saturday in Alexandra – well-reported comments about an “economic war with the white minority… in which there would be casualties”. Extreme, and thus Malema. But he only got a thousand people there. And only 50 came to his court case on Monday. Bear in mind that Helen Zille gets a thousand in the informal settlement of Kya Sands. And Alexandra is far more Malema’s natural constituency than Kya Sands is Zille’s.

Part of Malema’s problem is that his political agenda is basically stuck. Without him, it goes nowhere. And it’s hard for him to spend his time rousing people in the street when he’s busy with his number one priority. So he’s a showman without a show. And without a show, there’s not much to him. Being cut off from the media attention that he loves and hates so much, he’s slowly dying the political death of the unreported.

Even then, though much of the media, myself included, are busy writing a banner that says “Welcome to Camp Julius” outside his disciplinary hearing. Well not directly outside of course, the police won’t let us do that. We’ve been put on a patch of land a good block away from the actual venue. It’s not much of a camp-site, it’s basically a couple of folding chairs and a tripod clustered around the eNews van.

The location of the press was one of those “negotiations” carried out with a slightly exasperated police general. For hours on Sunday, the first day of the hearings at this location, there had been the back and forth of journalist versus police officer. You can imagine the dynamic. Bored journalists. Bored police officers.

It’s a common problem. The ANC has made much play during the argument over the Protection of Information Bill that “journalists are not special”, that they should not be treated any differently to any members of the public. But both at this location, and outside Luthuli House, we’ve been ordered off public land and away from kerbs, told to stand across the road from an entrance, that kind of thing. People who look just like us, but without cameras and microphones, are allowed to pass by on exactly the same stretch of land.

eNews had an even harder time of it on Sunday. Unfortunately, their van carries a satellite dish slightly larger than the standard DSTV issue. As a result, police simply refused them to come anywhere near the hearings. That is clearly against the law. Being eNews, they didn’t bother complaining to the police, they simply went on air with the fact that they were being ordered out of a public area by police who said the were acting on the “orders of Luthuli House”. It worked. Eventually they were allowed in.

Obviously much of this security, and the behaviour that goes with it, is outrageous. How dare police ring an area and demand to know where people are going? Having said that, should the matter ever come before a judge, he or she might be swayed by the images of what happened outside Luthuli House two weeks ago. And an argument that should someone mobilise that group of people again, someone could be seriously hurt.

Either way, the net result of this is that Malema is being cut off from his supporters, from his “street”. And that makes it even harder for him. And while there’s been wall-to-wall coverage of the comings and goings of Malema’s Range Rover, the lack of the man himself being seen and heard is telling. When he’s ducking and covering, he’s certainly not being seen to be leading.

On balance, it seems the longer this goes on, the worse it’s going to be for him. Cut-off, silenced and shackled, he may not be the force he once was. Unless, like Samson, he can somehow push hard at the pillars and hope that this time, the entire building of the ANC doesn’t come crashing down on his beret-ed head. DM



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