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18 October 2017 11:17 (South Africa)
Politics

Analysis: Malema’s curious switch on his political nemesis

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • Politics
Photo: Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) looks on before addressing his supporters during his campaign, ahead of the August 3 local government elections, in Etwatwa, a township near Benoni, South Africa. July 27,2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.

On Tuesday night it emerged that Julius Malema had given up his zero-media diet, and given an interview to eNCA’s Checkpoint. In the interview, seemingly out of nowhere, he said that he would be prepared to start a “merger process” with the ANC if they dropped below 50% in the 2019 elections. In some ways, he’s giving a nod to those who have held deep suspicions about his real long-term aims. But he has also given us a hint that in fact his Economic Freedom Fighters project is not going very well. Overall, the only real reaction to give to his comments is: “Huh?”. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Julius Malema is both easy and difficult to interview. He’s easy because you don’t really need to plan a whole list of questions, he will come with something he wants to say, and nothing on Earth will stop him from saying it. He’s difficult in that he is never going to easily answer the question you will put to him. He tends to almost dominate the interviewer, unless they’re prepared to show him a fair amount of elbow in the process.

In his interview with Nkepile Mabuse, he seems to go pretty far in explaining his “merger” proposal. He starts with his view on what will happen in 2019, that the ANC will drop below 50%, and the DA won’t get enough support to form a government on its own. If that is the case, he says, his “first offer will be for a merger with the ANC”. And it would not be a case of where he gets a position in government, or plays a role in policy. He is actually talking about a proper, wholesale merger.

The name of the ANC reminds our people of their painful past,” he says, so it would be the creation of a whole new party, in which both the ANC and the EFF cease to exist. It would require, he says, “unique leadership”.

You don’t say.

And, when asked who in the ANC he would be prepared to work with, he immediately mentions “Kgalema Motlanthe” and “Winnie Mandela”.

It is a series of comments that are completely startling, because they have come out of nowhere. There has been no hint, after post-election negotiations, of any talks with the ANC, and any brief glance at the back story of Malema’s expulsion from the party would reveal that it was bitter, long and dirty.

While there are some who will think it was just about President Jacob Zuma, the truth is it was about a whole lot more than just that. Malema may claim now it was just about him, but his comments when he was still in the party about corruption in its provinces of Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, his even then personal comments on other ANC leaders, and his attempt to set up a “Botswana Command Team” to try to change the government there were all a part of why he was expelled from the ANC in the first place. He was incapable of submitting to party discipline.

And we should not forget what kind of leader he was for the Youth League. By the time he left, seven of its nine provincial leaderships had been disbanded. A huge amount of money seems to have disappeared too, and it really does look for all the world that Malema simply took it with him.

And that is before we forget what was always claimed to be the real issue; the difference between himself and the ANC on policy. Malema wants, and has always wanted, “radical policy change”, the nationalisation of mines, the expropriation of land without compensation from whites, and even an end to cycle lanes. You name it, he wanted to remove or change it.

What is even more astonishing about Malema’s comments this week is what he has said, just recently, about the ANC. On August 5, just two days after the local government elections, Malema said that he was “devoting himself to making sure the ANC was out of power in my lifetime”. Now, he says that he would merge with the party to keep it in power.

Even by our standards of the about-turn, the cross and the double-cross, this is on a new scale.

It is one thing to double-cross other politicians. But it is always a mistake to double-cross voters. The “New” National Party did it when Marthinus van Schalkwyk took them into the DA and then the ANC. His voters stayed with the DA, and not the person who had double-crossed them. It would seem likely that the similar could happen to Malema, should he actually go ahead with his newest idea.

But his comment could also be an admission of defeat, an admission that his project of the Economic Freedom Fighters might not be working. Before the elections he was boasting about how there were only two real parties in South Africa, the EFF and the ANC. Now, after the results of the poll, he knows better. In fact, it is the DA he has been doing business with.

Many people thought the EFF would grow its support substantially in these polls, that it would break into perhaps the 20% mark. Instead, the elections showed that the EFF, at best, is going to be stuck at around 10%. This means that it is in danger of being a perennial party of protest, a party that people who have lost hope vote for. While they are growing in number, for the moment, it is unlikely that they alone will be able to propel him to the ultimate prize, the presidency.

For these people, the vote is often more important than it is for anyone else; generally speaking, the poorer you are, the more government policy, and thus your vote, matters.

Malema seems to be playing with these votes, the votes of the poorest. This could be a dangerous shift. Malema has played a role of bringing people who gave up on the parliamentary process back into formal politics, through simply giving them someone to vote for. Now that they’ve seen how their vote might be treated, their anger with the system, and possibly Malema himself, can escalate dangerously.

But there is something else very curious about this interview as well. Malema refused an invitation to come onto the Midday Report on Wednesday, claiming that the interview had been misconstrued, and the interviewer had an agenda. It is impossible to believe this. Malema knows exactly how our politics works, and he certainly knows, better than most, how the media works. There is no way he can now say that he gave an interview, on camera, and didn’t know what would happen with it. And of course he would know that this would be the headline, it was always inescapable. (The eNCA has published the entire interview here.)

This then raises questions of its own. Could it be that Malema was not of sound political mind when he gave the interview? Unlikely. Could it be that some political dynamic has changed in the days since recording the interview and when it was broadcast? It’s possible, perhaps. But it’s hard to see what exactly. What could have changed since August – when getting the ANC out of power “in my lifetime” was his primary aim – to “a merger with the ANC” a week or so ago, to back again now?

For the ANC of course, this presents a slightly difficult problem. Do you respond and thus give credibility to Malema’s comments, or say nothing, and worry that perceptions that something is indeed happening could grow. The answer, as the party’s Khusela Sangoni’s elegant pivot shows, is this:

Julius Malema and the EFF are suffering from delusions of grandeur if they think they can alter the future of the African National Congress.”

And then the putdown:

This is a reflection of his nostalgia for the African National Congress. We can accept, like we have always said, that life cannot be very easy outside the ANC.”

It’s not often we see the knife stuck in with a smile in our politics, but it’s always fun to watch when it happens.

One thing does now appear to be as certain as it can possibly be in our politics. The EFF is likely to face more turbulence in the future. These comments were surely not the result of consultation with other EFF members. Many of them will have left the ANC to follow Malema, others will have joined in protest at the ANC. Malema will now probably face more internal revolts.

Being a party leader is always difficult; the management of the party is much harder than campaigning against your opponent. That task could be about to get much harder.

He may well indeed wish he had someone like a Gwede Mantashe to do it for him. DM

Photo: Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) looks on before addressing his supporters during his campaign, ahead of the August 3 local government elections, in Etwatwa, a township near Benoni, South Africa. July 27,2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • Politics

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