South Africa, Politics

Julius Malema’s future: Be careful what you wish for!

By Chris Gibbons 26 April 2012

If you are happily waving Julius goodbye, beware, says CHRIS GIBBONS, you never know what might come back. You could be unpleasantly surprised.

The consensus these days is that Julius Malema’s course is run, at least for the time being. The ANC has expelled him and his avenues for further appeal look almost exhausted.

It’s no longer a case of being sent to stand silently in the corner, wearing a dunce’s cap. This time it’s out of the school altogether. The headmaster is angry, as are many of his senior colleagues. Goodbye, little Julius, and never come back.

Judging by the Twittersphere, there is a great deal of public jubilation at this prospect. To sum up, “It’s long overdue…” coupled with “How many times can one man be expelled from the party?” and “He had it coming!”

But there’s also, soberingly, a significant number of messages pointing out that the conditions which produced Malema – a couple of million angry, unemployed and unemployable young people – have not changed. In fact, they are worsening.

Fast forward some months. It is possible that young Julius could be having extensive conversations with people in blue uniforms. After all, we understand that SARS has served him with a tax bill of R10m. Basic arithmetic shows that to warrant a tax claim of R10-million you need to have earned about R25-million, if not more.

That kind of sum is impossible for the president of any political party, let alone a youth league, unless he’s been up to no good. In Malema’s case, there has been extensive media speculation that he somehow derived this cash from association with “tenderpreneurs”, and that this might be illegal. Hence the investigation into his affairs by the Hawks.

We must stress at this point that Malema himself has denied any wrongdoing, and stated that his books and bank accounts are open for scrutiny. Not guilty until proven otherwise must be the rule, despite the wishes of the Twitterati.

Nonetheless, we are allowed to speculate. Suppose that in due course those hypothetical conversations with the justice system led to Julius spending some time behind bars. He might draw a 15-year sentence – the minimum for the kind of fraud that produces R25m.

Given the way our system works, he could realistically expect to spend about five of those years actually in jail. If his political credit has definitely been exhausted, then no medical parole for him either.

As he entered the gates of Sun City, Leeuwkop or some less salubrious establishment in Limpopo, waving to a small but enthusiastic band of die-hard followers, he would pause, look over his shoulder, and remind them that he was, in fact, a political prisoner. He’s said as much already. The followers would applaud loudly and agree, and no doubt Malema would believe it, too. Later that fateful day, the Twittersphere would be even more raucous and jeering at his fall. And that would be that.

Or would it?

Remember the history of Africa. It is filled with men – nearly always men – who went to prison for their beliefs and who emerged far harder, stronger and more determined to see their cause triumph. Look no further than Robben Island, from which sprang not only Nelson Mandela, but also Govan Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma, a defining group of ANC stalwarts.

For men like these, prison becomes the forge in which they are tempered. Writing in the Assocation for Concerned African Scholars bulletin in 2009, Fran Buntman, explained it this way: “What makes Robben Island substantively and not only symbolically important is that the political prisoners used their incarceration to sustain and strengthen themselves, their organizations, and their cause(s). Particularly in the period Zuma and Mandela arrived on the Island, the early 1960s, conditions in the prison were harsh, soul destroying, and dangerous. Insufficient food, woefully inadequate medical care, the legacy of torture and dislocation in the months that preceded most inmates’ arrivals on Robben Island, hard labour, callous and often brutal guards, and criminal thugs (later removed) were key features of the prison.”

The list of leaders who shared similar experiences is long. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, Algeria’s Ahmed Ben Bella, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba – all were imprisoned before going on to lead their countries.

Nor is this solely an African phenomenon: Indonesia’s Sukarno, Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, Yugoslavia’s Tito and Ireland’s De Valera also spent time behind bars. Each man became president of his country.

Exile and house arrest play a similar role. In modern times, Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi has spent many years in her own form of domestic exile, but there are plenty of earlier examples of returning exiles: France’s Louis XVIII after the fall of Napoleon, and the founding father of modern Italy, Garibaldi, who spent two periods in exile in the 1840s and 1850s.

The experience of prison itself is no guarantee one way or the other of future performance by the imprisoned leader: compare Mandela to Mugabe to examine that. Louis XVIII was fat, vindictive and squandered the chance to reunite his nation. Ho Chi Minh is revered by modern Vietnam, as Garibaldi is loved by Italy.

But even a cursory glance through the names reveals that, like them or loathe them, all had steel in their souls, all were politically ruthless and all emerged from prison with an absolute determination to lead their country in a very specific direction. Coincidence, perhaps, or something to do with the post-colonial period in Africa, but on this continent the direction tended towards socialism and the left.

So let us continue our speculation. Some years into our future, Julius Malema emerges from a spell in jail. He still protests his innocence and his followers have waited loyally for him.

The government – still very much the ANC – has not yet quite managed to do anything about unemployment or poverty or education or health. In fact, the world around Malema looks very much like the one he said goodbye to some years earlier. In particular, those two to three million angry youngsters are still very much there. Except now there are now many more of them, and they’re even angrier.

The only thing that has changed is Malema himself. In those – say – five years in prison, he has become much harder, more bitter, but he has also spent that time educating himself. This is no longer a mere woodworker but a dedicated autodidact, with much more than just a working knowledge of law, politics and economics. Franz Fanon, Karl Marx and Chairman Mao are at his fingertips.

Like so many of the men whose names appear in the lists above, he is absolutely dedicated to taking control of both the ANC and South Africa. Think perhaps of a younger, angrier and far more dangerous version of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Could he provide a focal point to harnessing all the anger accumulated within the fed-up, hopeless, hungry masses? You could bet your life on it.

Is this the scenario wanted by the Twitterati, currently rejoicing at Malema’s discomfort? If not, perhaps they should be very careful of what they wish for. Wishes can come true, but sometimes with very different consequences. DM


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