Nine months ago, former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema faded off the political radar, only sporadically appearing in the news during his court appearances and the auctioning of his properties to pay his debts. Now he has re-invented himself as a freedom fighter outside the ANC, and is embarking on the en vogue countrywide tour to “consult” supporters on the best way to achieve economic freedom. So Malema wants to form a political party, but wants to build popular support for it first. And while he is severely damaged by his corruption charges and in the political wilderness now, it is worth remembering that so was one Jacob Zuma a few years ago. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Julius Malema became ANC Youth League (ANCYL) president in 2008 because he was the endorsed candidate of his predecessor Fikile Mbalula. During his presidency, Mbalula had built the League into a formidable organisation at the forefront of the campaign to defend Jacob Zuma during his trials and to carry him to the presidency of the ANC and the country. Malema, who was also endorsed for the position by the South African Communist Party (SACP), was selected to take over from Mbalula and continue the mission to dislodge former president Thabo Mbeki and those close to him from the ANC leadership and government.
Once this mission was complete, Malema’s focus changed. He saw the tremendous power he wielded as president of the ANC Youth League and saw this as a vehicle to build the League and his political empire in his own image. Proportional to his fallout with Zuma and the ANC leadership was the rise of his “economic freedom in our lifetime” campaign that gave Malema and his associates a radical platform on which to drive a crusade within the ANC. A key aspect of the economic freedom campaign was the nationalisation of mines which, through the sheer force used by Malema’s League, made it onto the agenda of the ANC’s policy discussions and warranted a special investigation into possible state intervention in the mineral sector.
However, as soon as Malema was expelled from the ruling party, the economic freedom campaign began to collapse. The acting leadership of the ANC Youth League was simply unable to sustain the momentum and radical action required to keep it alive. Since his expulsion, Malema was charged with corruption and money laundering, lost most of his assets and status symbols, and became isolated from his political and business network.
After the Marikana massacre last August, it appeared as though Malema had found a niche constituency among angry, frustrated mineworkers, but with his resources drained and a range of personal problems, he was unable to keep mobilising in the mining sector. He also briefly scared the government when he addressed disgruntled soldiers near a South Johannesburg military base, causing the Department of Defence to place all military bases around the country on high alert.
Malema also had currency in the British media during a visit to London during the Olympic Games, scoring high profile interviews and addressing public platforms on what he thought would be Zuma’s demise at the ANC’s Mangaung conference. He was in Mangaung during the ANC’s 53rd national conference but never showed up publicly once it became apparent that Zuma was on a wave to a second term.
And so South Africa’s most controversial and divisive political figure disappeared off the scene, with only his financial and legal troubles to fight for its place in the news.
But now Malema is back, ready to relaunch his campaign for economic freedom as a platform for a new political party. While he is still in deep trouble legally and financially, Malema’s timing to start a conversation around a new political movement is impeccable. On Monday, a national task team appointed to oversee the management of the ANC Youth League announced that it was disbanding four of the League’s provincial executive committees, bringing to seven the number of provinces dissolved.
The task team found “that the ANCYL is at its weakest state since its unbanning” and was a “shadow of its former self”. So the ANCYL is effectively lifeless and dysfunctional, requiring massive work to rebuild its structures. Malema took the opportunity of the task team’s admission of the League paralysis to mount his platform.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, Malema announced that his group of “economic freedom fighters” would be holding “consultative forums” across the country to discuss “what is to be done” to further their economic freedom campaign. This is similar to what academic and businesswoman Mamphela Ramphele and her Agang movement is doing to drum up support ahead of the formation of her political party.
But Malema and Ramphele’s platforms are very different. While Agang is pitching itself as the “good, clean and fresh” party, Malema wants to get down and dirty with some of the very issues that set him on a collision cause with the ANC leadership. The “base principles” for Malema’s consultations are:
Malema’s declarations about the ANC being in his blood and that he was prepared to take up arms and die for Zuma are now long forgotten. His future political platform will be in direct opposition to the ANC and he is already brutal about the ruling party’s leadership of the country.
Malema said the policy outcomes of the Mangaung national conference “demonstrated in the clearest terms that the ANC is committed to a right-wing, neo-liberal and capitalist agenda which has kept majority of our people on the margins of South Africa’s economy”.
“The ANC will never be a sustainable solution to South African developmental problems in the foreseeable future, due to its ideological zigzags, and open dominance of neoliberal and right wing politics,” he said in the statement.
And for now it does not appear that Malema aims to cosy up to any of the opposition parties: “Opposition political parties to the ANC oppose it on superficial issues, because all the major political formations in Parliament carry the same neoliberal, capitalist and free-market programme as the ANC.”
Or in the alliance. He said the SACP had been swallowed into reform politics of patronage and would never regain integrity to pursue real working-class struggles. Those in Cosatu who push for a radical agenda (read Zwelinzima Vavi and those allied to him) “will be isolated, banished and portrayed as anti-ANC”.
Malema also had unflattering words about his former organisation. “The ANC Youth League has been turned into a lap dog and sent around to repeat what the ANC leadership says and puppet Youth League leaders rewarded with cabinet posts and other pecks [sic] to sustain their puppet status.”
Malema predicts that the majority of the people in the informal settlements, townships, villages and other poor communities “will disengage from mainstream politics and not vote in successive elections”. “Service delivery protests will intensify and workplace stoppages in the mines and farms will also continue in higher volumes than before, thus worsening the economic crisis South Africa is undergoing,” he said.
So in this milieu, what then does Malema see as his role? In an interview with SABC radio, Malema confirmed that he was heading towards the formation of a new political party. “We won’t shy away from any option that the people want. If people say the fight for economic freedom can still be fought outside of the ANC, then so be it. We are not scared – the struggle is not only conducted in the African National Congress.”
He is making his move at the right time because there is clearly a large group of sidelined ANC Youth League members disorientated by the paralysis in the organisation and susceptible to Malema’s influence again. There is also a lot of turbulence in the alliance, particularly around the clashes within Cosatu. Malema’s agenda is almost identical to the policy demands of metalworkers’ union Numsa, the union leading Zwelinzima Vavi’s defence in Cosatu. Should Vavi be booted out of his position by his detractors in the federation, Malema is presenting him and his supporters, such as Numsa, with an option outside the ANC. Vavi and company might be loath to consider it now, but if things go horribly wrong for them, they could be scouting for a new political home.
Malema is also banking on some level of support from the remnants of the Forces of Change camp, which suffered defeat at Mangaung. While some of these people have fallen in line with the new ANC leadership, many still remain angry, disgruntled and alienated. However, it will be a big step for them to venture away from the ANC and into Malema’s radical politics.
Malema’s biggest problem is his legal troubles, as he is not in the ideal position to lead a political party while he is facing a lengthy criminal trial and the prospect of jail time. However, as the newly elected president of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta has shown, if you are popular enough and press the right buttons in the election campaign, even being accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court is not enough to deter voters. (Admittedly, the South African courts have a much greater hold on Malema The Candidate.)
Malema will no doubt also be fighting off detractors by reminding them that Zuma was heading the ANC ticket in the 2009 election campaign while still facing corruption charges. The case against him was scrapped just a few weeks before the election, by which time the ANC was well on its way to victory. Zuma had also climbed his way back to the ANC presidency after being fired as deputy state president and stepping back from his positions in the party when he was charged with rape.
But Malema is no Zuma or Kenyatta. He is not in line to be state president and he has a long way to go to get back to the wave of popularity he once rode. He also does not have powerful constituencies and people lobbying for him. Apart from a small coterie of loyalists, Malema no longer has a power-base or financiers.
What he is doing is putting himself back into play, hoping that there are sufficient disillusioned, restless and angry people out there to carry him back to active politics. Malema has nothing more to lose. And as he has proved before, Malema can be formidable and is no pushover. It will be fascinating to see how many people buy what he is selling. DM
All tortoises are actually turtles. Some turtles however are not tortoises.