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What comes after Malema’s mass action?

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

On Thursday and Friday the “99% of South Africa” will march to the Chamber of Mines, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and the Union Buildings to make themselves heard. But what will happen afterwards? There’s a real danger that for the people marching for better service delivery, the mass action will only serve to prove how useless mass actions are when it comes to swaying our government. Which will likely lead to even angrier riots.

There will be two distinct sets of purposes on Thursday and Friday when the ANC Youth League takes to the streets in its “Mass Mobilisation and Action Programme”. There will be those who will be there at the bidding of ANC Youth League president Julius Malema – who will be more concerned about saving his own political career – and there will be those who will be using the opportunity to pin their localised and intractable problems to a larger cause in hopes of finally getting some movement.

This sort of thing was made evident at the Occupy JSE sit-in last week. One group was there because I think of the global Occupy movement. Most of the people there came to protest some form of bungled service delivery. People from townships were there to protest about electricity, the incompetence of local government in Gauteng, housing and the arrest of their comrades made during the township riots. Two rather different sets of priorities.

When the powers that be sit down to plan their reaction to the Youth League’s march, they need to keep this in mind – they are essentially dealing with two problems.

Dealing with the political problem of Malema shouldn’t pose too many threats. We’ve been saying for a while now that it is very possible for ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe to have Malema removed from the scene for long enough to ensure a smooth re-election for Jacob Zuma in Mangaung next year. The path of the ANC disciplinary committee currently hauling young Juju over the coals in order to arrive at either a suspension or expulsion is certainly treacherous. But walkable. This all depends on whether or not the ANC national executive committee is going to have the stomach to push Malema out, of course. Some indications suggest that some of the NEC comrades are having doubts about this sort of action.

Malema himself has shown no doubt about how he wants things to go – he first played the violence card, which earned him a bit of time. Further delaying tactics led to the hearing being postponed till 26 October.

It does not come as a surprise that the ANCYL planned mass action will be two days after the final witnesses are expected to testify at his hearing. Wednesday may well be the last day before judgement is handed down against the ANCYL president, and he wasted no time in making a statement about that.

Then there are the other, actual people with real problems. The township shack dwellers and civic organisations eager to use the ANCYL march to their advantage. Many of them will not be 100% sympathetic to Malema’s vision for the country, but they understand him when he speaks about increasingly expensive electricity, housing issues, education and jobs because these are the things that affect them the most in their communities. These people feel like nobody is listening, and so resort to drastic action to get attention. If they do come out in numbers on Thursday and Friday, it will be in hopes that perhaps marching behind Malema will get them heard. 

Perhaps understanding how crucial those numbers will be, Malema has made a great show of inviting the people of Tembelihle to his march.

The ANC needs to be very careful about how they deal with the second group of marchers. To simply dismiss them as Malema’s rabble would be shortsighted and downright dangerous. This could be an unprecedented chance for the ruling party to step forward, and in one grand gesture show that they’ve heard the communities and are willing to help them (follow-through will be everything, of course).

If the community leaders feel like even marching with Malema won’t get them heard, it’ll be curtains for the ANC in these communities. Talk will be off the table, replaced with greater desperation and rage. The riot will become the chosen mode of political dialogue.

A start would be arranging mass izimbizo at Tembelihle, Alexandria, Tembisa and other communities were they’ve become gatvol of the government’s indifference. Concerns will need to be addressed directly and swiftly. Most importantly, the ANC government must make it clear that talking produces results.

There’s also the danger of handing Malema political ammunition if it seems like his march made the government jump. This will only come into play should Juju survive this hearing with his power intact. But in the greater scheme of things, the “Ring of Fire” is more dangerous to the ANC than Malema. DM



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