Let’s go back a bit. It’s hard to believe that Malema’s rise to leader of the Youth League happened less than four years ago. His arrival on the political stage was so loud and his star burnt so brightly that it’s hard to remember a time without him.
He was divisive and antagonistic. He called whites thieves and told Buthelezi, the long-time head of the IFP, that he would recruit his own family members to the ANC. It was easy to dismiss Malema as a crude caricature of a populist, militant leader.
Hell, it was only too attractive and seductive for bigots to give in to their fears and anger and fight Malema’s crude racial stereotypes with stereotypes of their own. Malema was a baboon, a monkey, an imbecile, fat, a little boy. He was the cheeky kaffir pikanin rattling the gilded cage of post-apartheid white South Africa.
He revelled in his role as lightning rod for all this hate and fear. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy that he would hold up to his supporters. See, this is how white people will behave when you challenge their privilege. This is how you will be treated when you dare to vocalise “the truth”.
The Youth League became sexy. The youth had their champion. If you were a neutral observer you could not fail to appreciate that he was a natural, gifted orator. Malema could empathise with the unemployed, disaffected youth trapped in a world not of their making, a world in which they had little agency and little hope. At every rally where he would rail against white monopoly capital the message would be reinforced: I come from humble stock, like you. Like you, I am treated as a nothing by the powerful. Our birthright has been stolen, but I will fight for you and we will win it back.
Malema did have the credentials to be the Moses to his people and to lead them to the Promised Land (aka economic freedom in our lifetime). He grew up poor and was politically radicalised at a very young age. He moved through the ranks of Cosas, becoming national chairman of the organisation by the age of 20. In this early photograph of Malema you can see a young teenaged boy staring defiantly at the camera. The men in the picture with him are years, even decades, older than he is. It’s a poignant image of the boy without a father who becomes a child of the struggle.
He certainly cultivated this myth to lend legitimacy to a controversial Youth League election in 2008. Maybe he did carry a firearm to Chris Hani’s funeral at the age of 13 and maybe he didn’t. As his power and influence in the Youth League increased the myth of the man began to unravel. The evidence of wealth and excess began to pile up. The actions of Malema and his inner circle in the Youth League became increasingly authoritarian. Provincial branches of the League that crossed him were disbanded. Accusations of voting irregularities at elective conferences grew louder and more frequent.
His supporters remained steadfast and the chattering classes could not understand why. Or, to be more accurate, they did not want to understand why. To understand would be to acknowledge that Malema was not a cause of youth disaffection, but a symptom. To understand the plight of the youth would require climbing down from the throne of privilege and comfort and sitting barefoot in the dust. It would mean joining the rusty conveyer belt of public education to be pushed and prodded right to the end of the line, ultimately tumbling into the untidy heap of factory seconds.
It is a terrible indictment of our public life that Malema was the greatest and most vocal champion of the youth. It is telling that, right near the end of his professional life, during last year’s march for economic freedom, he was still being supported by the youth, and not just the uneducated and desperate youth. Even though Malema was now compromised and exposed he was still speaking truth to power.
We can’t afford to ignore the truths that Malema doled out in half-measures for his own narrow benefit. Far too many of our youth are trapped in poverty and helplessness. They have nobody fighting in their corner. Last week’s budget made it abundantly clear that the government prioritises the needs of the international bond markets and organised labour above the needs of the unemployed youth. With Malema out of the picture, the youth have lost their champion.
Although a strong case can be made to explain the disciplinary hearing as the culmination and coalescing of Zuma’s political power there is a cynical undertone to the whole proceedings. Malema was tolerated and even cultivated as a leader when the Zuma bloc was unsure of its ability to challenge him. He was given leeway to wreck the Youth League’s internal structures for his own benefit and to alienate minority voters from the ANC before the 2011 elections. He never noticed that all the rope he’d been given had been coiled 13 times around his neck.
Malema and his colleagues had the swagger and the naïveté of youth in their approach to disputes within the alliance. They mistook popular support within the Youth League for real political power within the alliance and they played fast and loose with ANC protocol. Malema’s biggest mistake, however, was to take Zuma at his word when he claimed publicly that Malema was future president material.
Zuma has shown, increasingly, that there is nobody he will not throw under the bus in order to save himself. Ask Shaik, Cele or Shiceka. What has also become clear is that there has been a hollowing-out of ANC structures under Zuma, which serves to neutralise any potential threats to his ambitions. Ferial Haffajee has penned a moving piece describing how the ANC Women’s League is a shadow of its former self under the Zuma administration. The Youth League has also been allowed to fall apart under his watch.
The ANC is a secretive and regimented organisation by modern political standards. In the past few years it has seen its power become even more centralised and less democratic. There are now calls to downsize the NEC and to purge it of talkative elements.
To cut Malema loose now, after allowing him carte blanche to undermine the democratic structures of the Youth League, seems like cynicism and expediency of the worst kind from the ANC top brass. It is probably just fate, timing and internal politics at play. Unfortunately it makes the ANC look like a potter who didn’t care enough about his clay to fire it properly in the kiln and is now left with broken shards. In the long run the ANC may be the biggest loser. That is, of course, apart from the youth of the country who now have to hope that a new hero can emerge. DM