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ANCYL regime change today, ANC regime change tomorrow?


Chris Vick is chairperson of Mobilize, which launched the Energy Comms campaign earlier this year to build public understanding of the energy crisis. Mobilize did similar work in 2020-2022 around Covid-19 under the name COVID Comms.

The ANC ruling on Julius Malema and his comrades could have more impact on the future of the ANC than it does on the Youth League leader. By CHRIS VICK.

The ANC doesn’t take prisoners when it comes to dealing with internal dissent. 

Ask any of the leaders who left the ANC in 1959 to form the Pan-Africanist Congress. Ask the “Gang of 8” who were expelled after the ANC’s Morogoro Conference in 1969. Ask the Umkhonto weSizwe cadres executed at Quattro during the 1980s. Ask Pallo Jordan, who was fortunate enough to escape the firing squads. Or Chris Hani. Ask Bantu Holomisa, Thabo Mbeki, Terror Lekota or Mbhazima Shilowa. Or, of course, Julius Malema.

These political purges are a necessary part of the ANC’s political life. You don’t build hegemony by tolerating heresy – particularly if that heresy is a direct assault on whoever’s in power at the time.

After all, a “broad church” like the ANC is only a “broad church” if you respect the “high priest”. At least until Jesus Christ comes.

One of the downsides of being so effective at dealing with dissidents, however, is that, sooner or later you end up with a critical mass outside the party which is more influential than the critical mass within it.

The ANC has not reached that point – yet. But the Malema judgment could change that, depending on how the Youth League leadership and its allies choose to regroup and whether it is able to mobilise sufficient support behind its beheaded leadership and their allies.

At the heart of what happens within the ANC over the next 12 months is the appetite for regime change within the ANC, in response, reaction or even retaliation to the regime change which has swept through the ANCYL.

The Malema ruling could define whether Zuma has sufficiently consolidated his position and secured a second term, or has triggered a situation quite similar to the one the ANC faced just a year before the Polokwane conference – where “coalitions of the wounded” begin to form in opposition to the existing leadership.

It would be foolish to underestimate the strength of the glue that can bind these coalitions. In 2007, it was just such a movement that swept Zuma into office, tossed out Mbeki and parked Kgalema Motlanthe in the no-man’s-land called the deputy presidency.

What united the 2007 coalition was not always a conviction that Zuma was the right man for the job – it was the conviction that someone, anyone, had to replace Mbeki.

And so a range of disparate forces rallied behind Zuma in 2007: sometimes united by sympathy for the “victim” and what had been done to him (and themselves) by Mbeki; sometimes out of the belief that Zuma was indeed a future president; but often purely because of a desire to get Mbeki out of office.

Thabo had to go. And so: Regime Change 101, ANC style.

But the problem with regime change, as the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and other countries can testify, is that it’s always a two-stage process.  Stage 1: sweep the bastards out. Stage 2: find some new bastards to put in their place.

And Stage 2 is generally a hell of a lot harder than Stage 1.

For the ANC, Stage 2, post-Polokwane, has been a particularly difficult time. The movement’s internal strife has intensified, perhaps tenfold – and often with Julius Malema, irritatingly to the leadership, at the centre of it.

Zuma was consistently unable to unite the various interest groups that make up the ANC alliance – partly because of his political indebtedness and partly because of his slow response times – and the disunity continued to cascade down to provinces, cities, even branches. It has rocked the SACP, its relations with Cosatu, as well as the Women’s League and MK Veterans.

As a result, ANC leaders now speak publicly and to the media of how the disunity and infighting has affected the organisation — and (when they remember the voters) how this has impacted on government, on service delivery and the movement’s perpetual promise of a better life for all.

Right now, the ANCYL leadership make useful fall-guys for the disunity, the dissent and the rabble-rousing. In silencing them, the ANC leadership may feel it has silenced all dissenters.

But that may not be the case.

The question, then, is the same: is there a sufficient body politic within the ANC which believes Zuma has to go – and if so, who replaces him?

Of late, the presidency’s posture towards ANC politics, and towards leadership in government, has shifted slightly. Its strategic and tactical capacity has been beefed up and it has sought to take a tighter grip on some of the reputational issues confronting it.

Both the government and ANC presidencies (for they are one and the same) have been trying to shake off the lame-duck image and reassert themselves.

Generally, these actions have sought to consolidate the perception of the authority of the presidency – creating an impression that the leadership is not only in office, but is in power.

Charging the ANCYL leadership – a decision triggered by Zuma and his fellow top-six office bearers – can be seen as part of this new decisive strategy.

It has certainly worked in some quarters: it brought about a sigh of relief from some of those who were critical of Zuma fiddling while South Africa was starting to burn. As a result, sections of society celebrated – disproportionately, perhaps — when the president buckled under pressure to sack ministers who had been criminally incompetent for months, even years.

But the flipside of the new presidential posture is that it has sent a very clear message to the disgruntled, the wounded. And the message is: it’s time to up the ante and circumvent a Zuma second term.

Until this week, as was the case pre-Polokwane, the Youth League leadership stood at the centre of the strategy to oust the president – with Malema as its icon. He was the battering ram behind which others often hid as he intensified the war of words, ratcheted up the populist rhetoric and did whatever necessary to try to consolidate popular support.

At times, it seemed he was running a political Ponzi-scheme, consistently finding new enemies to fight in order to win new allies.

This strategy hasn’t really worked to date. There has been no real semblance of an organised, institutionalised set of support bases in a position to oust Zuma. The organisational traction wasn’t there, and the Youth League and its allies had difficulty building a consistent, structured support base.

This was compounded by the coyness of Motlanthe, its new Zuma, who appears to still want a gold-lettered invitation before he decides to be president, and the increasingly crass campaigning of Tokyo Sexwale, which generally alienates more supporters than it wins.

So where is Juju in all this now? Is he really down and out, or just winded?

He’s already thrown down a post-DC gauntlet, telling students in Polokwane that his struggle continues. His confidantes are regrouping with the ANCYL national executive committee on Saturday to discuss the way forward, with the watchword being “time is on our side” (which is probably true – Zuma is 69 years old, after all).

But the reality, for now, is that he has dug his own hole. He made stupid statements and failed to learn from history – that you take on the ANC elephant at your peril (or relate to it as a mere pig).

He failed to realise just how effective – deadly, even — the 99-year-old ANC can be in dealing with dissent. He failed to recognise how effective the ANC machine is in maintaining a semblance of political hegemony by using process: constitution; disciplinary code, appeals process, blah blah.

He also failed to mobilise key constituencies behind him – currently, he only has just over half the Youth League on his side, by all accounts, and failed to mobilise a significant bloc of NEC members in his DC defence.

Most importantly, while big on political theatre and tactical manoeuvres, he failed to study strategy. After all, you don’t survive the internal upheavals the ANC has experienced without learning a lesson or two about process and how to use it.

But Malema may still have the last laugh, because, although he may be in the wilderness for now, his suspension may provide the spark that unites the new Coalition of the Wounded. It may be the bridge too far for Zuma.

If anything, it could force a new approach to the succession battle and the development of what may now (a year from Mangaung) sound like unthinkable options – for example, a real regime change in the ANC which jettisons the entire current ANC leadership and brings in new, fresh blood.

The action against Malema will ultimately force those who have been sitting on the succession fence to make a decision: to advance, re-group or retreat.

This push could come not necessarily from Malema, but from people who see the signs of this new bullish presidency as an indication that Zuma is dead set on a second term. And who see Malema as – you guessed it – a “victim”.

The obvious suspects for such a move would be key confidantes of Malema: the youthful Fikile Mbalula and his ally Paul Mashatile.

Mashatile, in particular, has a number of positives:

  • He has no burst condoms (that we know of) to worry about, and has worked extremely hard to reposition himself since the days of the “Alex Mafia”.
  • He represents a clean break from the entire layer of current ANC leadership. Electing Mashatile as president would sweep all current contenders – Zuma, Motlanthe and Sexwale – completely off the board and invigorate the movement at a time of organisational malaise. It would provide the opportunity for a fresh approach, unencumbered by exile baggage and past relationships.
  • He represents the kind of generational change that a range of political forces are calling for – linking the ANC leadership not only to the ANCYL, but also to a broader range of youth, including young professionals.
  • He brings with him an energised new leadership cadre and organisational style, and has close links with other ANC leaders in his age bracket, such as KZN Premier Zweli Mkhize.
  • He already holds considerable power in key parts of the ANC machine. He is “chair of chairs” convening an informal structure made up of ANC provincial chairmen, who play an increasingly important role as provinces gear up for their pre-Mangaung processes, and who potentially represent a new centre of power within a disunified ANC.
  • He and his allies understand the importance of old-fashioned political organising. They know the ANC’s decision-making processes backwards; they know where the pressure-points are and they know how and when to push them.

A clean sweep by a younger generation of ANC leaders is a radical option, yes. But when the entire leadership of a key formation such as the ANCYL is swept out of office, as happened this week, we’re already in the realm of radical change – reminiscent, perhaps, of the purge that swept out the ANC leadership in 1949 and ushered in Mandela, Tambo, Sisulu and (Govan) Mbeki.

And in this era of economic freedom fighters, it’s worth remembering that the cornerstone of ANCYL policy in 1949 stated, upfront: “Political democracy remains an empty form without substance – unless it is properly grounded on a base of economic and industrial democracy.” DM


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