Analysis: ANC’s ‘broad church’ can lead to uncomfortable pews
- Rebecca Davis
- South Africa
- 24 Jul 2013 (South Africa)
COSAS – the Congress of SA Students – was where a 21-year old Julius Malema first cut his political teeth. But if Malema hoped to carry some radical students with him to his Economic Freedom Fighters venture, their recent statements have made it clear that they’re having none of it. South Africa’s largest student organisations seem keen to affirm an unshaken faith in the ANC – but threats of vigilante violence on Tuesday had the ANC scrambling to distance itself from Cosas’s DIY fervour. By REBECCA DAVIS.
First things first: a primer in the sometimes confusing organisation of South Africa’s student politics. There’s Cosas – founded in 1979 – and then there’s its palindromic alter ego Sasco – founded in 1991 through the merger of the South African National Student Congress (SANSCO) and the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). We are currently concerned with the former, led by “President General” Thologelo Malaji and Secretary General Tshiamo Tstetsi.
Julius Malema first came to prominence as Cosas president in 2001. Indeed, the young Malema was so invested in the Cosas struggle that he has previously credited the organisation with being to blame for his poor school performance.
“I got excited after joining Cosas and failed Grade 8,” Malema said in 2002. He went on to repeat Grade 9. “I was a gentleman and used to wear school uniform,” Malema said in the same interview; but “I was not always in school because of organisational activities”.
Malema attracted widespread media attention for the first time in 2002 when he led a march of thousands of school pupils through Johannesburg. They were protesting against a Gauteng education directive that schools should close their gates during school hours for safety reasons, but that’s not why the march made headlines. Rather, it was for the fact that the pupils looted shops and smashed car windows as they went along. The die was cast for Malema’s reputation – and that of Cosas - in the media.
But Malema’s former political home has abandoned him. (Together with all the others.) Last week Cosas’s Joburg regional secretary, Charles Mokonyama, apologised “to the nation for having produced a rebel like Julius Malema”. In a pithy turn of phrase, Mokonyama called the EFF “red ants”, and said that Malema “nearly destroyed our beloved movement”. Sasco has taken a similar tack, releasing their own Malema-bashing statement last week. Their president Ngaoko Selamolela labelled Malema and the EFF as “helpless daylight tsotsis”, calling them “crazy juveniles” who are “only preoccupied with throwing cheap insults at the ANC and its leadership.
Both organisations are clearly keen to stay in the good graces of the ANC’s top dogs. But on Tuesday, Cosas released another statement of fairly bewildering breadth, covering a multitude of “ills of society that are man-made” which Cosas has decided it will no longer accept.
Because the statement ranges over a great deal of territory and is rather wordy, the Daily Maverick has taken the liberty of summarising it in a manner which we believe reflects its content and intent accurately. Thus:
Social problem: Rape
COSAS solution: Cutting off private parts. (No, really: “We are going to take the law in to our hands and defend our future starting from cutting off private parts of those who rape our brothers and sisters.” On a side note, kudos to Cosas for facing up to the oft-neglected issue of male rape.)
Social problem: Drug dealers
COSAS solution: Removing them “because we know where they live”
Social problem: Disruption of teaching due to protests
COSAS solution: Mass meetings between all stakeholders in education sector
Social problem: Nutrition in schools
COSAS solution: More and healthier food, especially in high schools
Social problem: Publication of Matric results in newspapers, leading to low self-esteem, depression or suicide
COSAS solution: Stop it (no alternative offered)
Social problem: King Dalindyebo disrespecting Zuma and South Africa
COSAS solution: He must stop embarrassing himself and call for formal meeting with Zuma to raise concerns. Must also stop his extensive intake of drugs
Social problem: General trend of insulting Zuma
COSAS solution: Creation of insult law, such as exists in Cameroon and Zambia
Social problem: Toms, Dicks and Harrys thinking they can start alternatives to the ANC. (That presumably leaves Mamphelas in the clear.)
COSAS solution: Arrest Julius “humpty dumpty” Malema and his gangsters if they cannot explain who is funding them
While there are some genuine points amidst the fog of vigilantism and repression (protests in the education sector do obstruct teaching and learning; school nutrition is a perfectly sensible issue to raise), much of it reads like the bravado-laden posturing of youth. (Other bits are shockingly un-studenty – surely if anyone could be relied on to defend Dalindyebo’s spliff habit it would be students, for heaven’s sake?)
The statement would likely not have received a scrap of media attention if it hadn’t been for their threats of vigilante violence. After all, Cosas has made some pretty outlandish threats before. In March they released a statement calling for an end to learner/teacher relationship in schools. Such teachers, they said, should be fired with immediate effect. And if not? Well, if not, Cosas had just the solution. “If these teachers are not dismissed we will mobilise all our male learners to propose [sic] either the concerned teacher’s wife or their female teachers”, they warned. (Lucky, lucky females.)
But as far as we’re aware, there hasn’t subsequently been a sudden upturn in the amount of female teachers being “proposed” to. In other words, on this occasion too, Cosas is probably spouting a lot of hot air. So why should we pay attention to anything they say?
Well, for one thing, because the ANC took them seriously enough to immediately issue a rebuke, even though Cosas’s statement amounted to a badly-written love letter to the ANC. “Our position is that we have law enforcement agencies in this country and anybody who commits crime must face the might of the law,” spokesman Keith Khoza was reported saying in The Times.
“It is not the responsibility of Cosas to do that,” Khoza continued. “Where crime has been committed people must not take matters into their own hands.”
The ANC’s favourite mantra is that it is a “broad church”, and in recent years the broadness of that church has seemed to stretch to bursting point. The notion is an intuitively appealing but incoherent one, because in practice it seems to mean that you have to put up with all kinds of unsavoury elements. Cosas’s attitude neatly demonstrates this problem: some of the most vocal ANC and Zuma supporters are those endorsing seriously problematic beliefs and actions. The DA hasn’t really had to face this problem in the past due to its limited size, but the recent Dalindyebo membership furore suggests that it’s an issue the opposition will come to face more and more as it grows.
In this instance, the ANC should be commended for taking a firm stance against its student acolytes, however devoted their support. Vigilante justice is no joke in South Africa: a SAPS report published by City Press last November revealed that 78 vigilante murders were committed in Khayelitsha alone over the previous 14 months. Vigilantism is spawned by conditions where faith in the police and justice system is low, and there’s abundant reason to believe that description fits many parts of South Africa.
It’s to be hoped that Cosas will heed the words of their elders in this regard. As for Malema, it seems he’s better off looking elsewhere for EFF support from the youth.
- Cosas statement on Politicsweb
Photo: Cosas members strongly supported Jacob Zuma at the ANC's 2007 Polokwane conference. (Daily Maverick)