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Now the ANC must treat the root cause of the Malema symptom

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.

The ANC has its work cut out if it wants to prevent the emergence of a successor to Julius Malema. Merely reining in the ANC Youth League won’t do. The party needs to reconnect with its biggest constituency: the poor. It needs to convince them, once more, that the party is on their side.

People don’t take to the streets to protest or riot if there is an easier and less dangerous way to get their message across. Riots are a sign that the people feel like they have nothing left to lose. They are desperation in action.

It is therefore rather telling that the people in the townships surrounding Johannesburg elected to embark on riots last year to make themselves heard. But why didn’t they simply elect leaders from the Democratic Alliance in last year’s local elections? The answer to this is probably very complicated, but the facts lend themselves to two interpretations: the poor feel like the ANC is their only shot at a decent life, and the ANC is taking them from granted because of this.

The ANC has always claimed to be a pro-poor party, and most of its policies are slanted in that direction. The ANC-led government has built houses for an estimated 5-million people. The government supports about 15-million people through an elaborate system of grants. The school fees for a year in government schools located in the poorest parts of the country are less than what it would cost three people to go see a blockbuster film at a theatre. And the government is now setting up the national health insurance scheme. From a policy perspective, the ANC can effectively argue that it is pro-poor.

But what about service delivery? This is where the party’s reputation falls flat. The government’s track record on this aspect of governance is very bad, especially at the local government level. Any attempts by anyone to address this are half-arsed and insincere. It creates the impression that the ANC doesn’t appreciate the immediacy of the social problems that some of these people face. It’s more important for the party to fulfil political imperatives such as representivity than it is to have efficient and caring service delivery. And when it becomes too much, the people riot.

This is the space that Malema was allowed to occupy. He used the anger of the poor as fuel for his own political ambitions.

The ANC’s national executive committee made it pretty clear via the national disciplinary committee and the national disciplinary committee of appeals that they don’t want a Malema-like figure in the party. But another one will surely rise if the space where Malema once played is not closed. It’s the execution that is going to be close to impossible.

Firstly, the upper crust of the ANC needs to be much more accessible to the people on the ground. If you want to affect ANC policy, the way to do that now is to join the ANC, and attend regular branch meetings, where your voice will literally be one of a million. If you’re smart, you’ll move up the party hierarchy. Someday you may even be a provincial chairman or even an NEC member. Then you’re probably close enough to be able to confidently whisper in the ear of the party president or secretary-general. The ANC doesn’t give the impression that an ordinary branch member can just pick up the phone and speak to Zuma or Gwede Mantashe.

Secondly, service delivery has to work. It needn’t necessarily speed up, but it certainly has to be done right. This does mean sacking a lot of provincial and local government workers for being incompetent. This is the only way to stop frustrated people from thinking: “Hmmm, maybe this nationalisation thing isn’t such a bad idea after all. Screw the economy; it is doing nothing for me as it is”.

Lastly, the party really needs to rethink its stance on the so-called generational mix problem. It boggles the mind how, in a country with a young population, the ruling party is run exclusively by old people. Even at provincial and local government level. This can’t be. I’ve said before that the ANCYL cut-off age is far too high, and it is doing a brilliant job of breeding a bevy of frustrated and ambitious young people.

The NEC is going to pat itself on the back for getting rid of Malema. But he, or someone like him, will be back unless they fix the root causes. Unfortunately the party’s appetite for unpopular political decisions is non-existent. DM


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