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Is this finally the ANCYL change of heart?

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.

So both the ANCYL president and the secretary general have issued apologies over the past weekend. Sort of. Have the Young Lions finally blinked first? Not quite. Welcome to the murky and confusing world of dog-whistle politics.

If you’ve watched television news this weekend, or kept an eye on wire-news-base sites, you’d have noticed much ado about apologies given by ANC Youth League secretary general Sindiso Magaqa and the league president Julius Malema for “apologising” to the league.

Well, first off, let’s treat the two separately because they aren’t actually linked, as such.

So, Magaqa. This one is pretty straightforward. If you’re subscribed to the ANC’s email service, you know to expect releases at around 14:00 in the afternoon, and onward. Spokespeople will have had time to come into the office, attend meetings and agree on a public relations strategy for the day with the powers that be. Then they’ll have penned the emails and then press: send. It all takes a bit of time, but it does help the receiver gauge how important the contents are going to be. If it arrives early in the morning, or very late at night, then someone has gone out of their way to send it. Something’s happened.

At some point last year, the ANC decided to centralise its email broadcasting service. Previously, the ANCYL and ANC press releases were on different systems. They have now been put under one system, which is the ANC’s. All communications from the party now go through this one channel (that includes the ANC Women’s League, which has suddenly found its voice through its new spokeswoman Troy Martens). It seems like the ANC media liason team doesn’t read the emails that get sent under it’s name. The system must be automated. It is still very odd to receive an email from “ANC Media Mailing List” containing a press release by Floyd Shivambu, slamming something that the ANC has said. And just to mess it up a little bit more, the number of Ishmael Mnisi (an ANC spokesman) gets automatically included at the bottom of every email. He must have got some strange calls in the last months.

But I digress. The point is that late on Saturday night, an email arrived.

The email contained a message from the ANCYL secretary general Sindiso Magaqa. “I Sindiso Magaqa, as directed by the National Disciplinary Committee would like to apologise to Minister Malusi Gigaba unreservedly and unconditionally. No media inquiries,” the press release said.

It would appear that Magaqa will not appeal the decision by the ANC national disciplinary committee (NDC) to require him to apologise to Gigaba.

Then on Sunday night, the SABC aired an interview by Vuyo Mvoko with the ANCYL president Julius Malema. While the hour-long broadcast was largely unremarkable (save perhaps for the godawful set), in his last question to Malema, Mvoko inquired whether he’d like to apologise for anything he’d said. To my surprise, “I’ve done nothing wrong” Malema apologised.

Specifically, he said if the leadership thought that he’d done wrong, he was sorry for that.

Naturally, this led to some speculation on the socialwebs afterwards that Malema had finally buckled under pressure and bowed to the will of the ANC. He certainly made the right noises throughout the interview to create that impression: The thought of life outside of the ANC galls him, he will relinquish ANCYL leadership if he can keep his membership, he will lead a simple life as a cattle farmer should he be kicked out, et cetera.

But has the ANCYL really decided to give up the fight? No, they haven’t. I  believe they are preparing the ground for a post-appeal strategy to take the fight to the branch-level of the ANC. This is all in preparation for that.

Some history, if you’ve forgotten: in the second week of November 2011, Malema and other ANCYL leaders were handed various sentences by the NDC for a number of grievances. Malema and Shivambu received the harshest ones – the president was suspended from the party for five years, and the spokesman for three. They were given two weeks to appeal the decision, which they did. Almost all their appeals were tossed aside by the national disciplinary committee of appeals (NDCA), with exception to one procedural matter: the ANCYL had been led to believe they would have a second hearing for the presentation of evidence in mitigation of sentencing, and they had not been given that opportunity. The NDCA then duly sent the matter back to the NDC so that this hearing could take place. The appellant in all this, the ANC itself, said that if this was going back for mitigation, then they’d like to present evidence in aggravation of sentence. The posturing and bluster of the young lions really pointed to one outcome: the aggravation argument would win out. And how: Malema was summarily expelled from the party. The ANC successfully argued that he was beyond rehabilitation (which is what the suspension was supposed to achieve) and was akin to a cancer that needed to be cut out of the body.

At this stage, the ANCYL has the option to appeal (once again) to the NDCA. 

At the mitigation hearing, Shivambu said he had apologised for his actions leading to his suspension – swearing at a Naspers-employed journalist – and therefore his sentence should be lessened. The NDC saw it otherwise. Thanks to the myriad of critical statements the ANCYL had released while their case was ongoing, the committee was of the view that the young ‘uns weren’t actually that sorry.

Let’s get back to current events. What do the two apologies mean? They are two separate cases, even if they are part of the same strategy. Magaqa had no choice but to apologise. If he didn’t, he’d have been suspended from the party. In his case, it seems like the warm bosom of the ANC was more important than any brash displays of solidarity with his leader.

Malema wasn’t required to apologise in order to escape sanction. The whole book has already been flung at him. So why this unexpected display of contrition?

Unfortunately, the reports out there have characterised Malema’s words as an apology. It is not! Magaqa apologised. Malema did not. What he said exactly was: “I want to also apologise to the leadership of the African National Congress for anything that they think I have done wrong”. And that, right there, is a classic case of dog whistle politics. Each constituency that listens to this hears what they need to. To us, the chatteratti, Malema apologised. He conceded defeat. But to his crucial soldiers in the months to come – the angry young lions and those with lots of energy and nothing to do – this apology will only serve as further evidence that their leader was politically persecuted.

It is crucial to understand that at no point in the last two months has the ANC asked for Malema to apologise. Leniency in Magaqa’s sentencing depended on his apology. Thus, in his case, an apology was a matter of process. Again, this was not the case for Malema.

So what is Juju up to here? What is he saying to his believers?

Well, it is part of the strategy that he has embarked upon ever since that great Sunday Times interview in which he said that he was now seriously contemplating a retreat to his farm in Limpopo to breed cattle. The thing for Malema now is victimhood: he is being kicked out of the ANC for his policy ideas, not his behaviour.

Almost every speech he has made since October last year has been about how he is merely continuing the long tradition of ANCYL militancy for radical policy change. How he’s being punished for what the league had always done before. So, really, we should feel sorry for him.

So it makes perfect sense for Malema to sit at the SABC studios and say that he’s sorry IF the leadership think he’s done anything wrong. He’s shifted responsibility to his accusers. It’s their problem now. And as far as his disciples are concerned, he’s done everything to make amends (trust me, they are not interested in due process or how rule books say things should go) and is obviously thus a victim of a political conspiracy.

What Malema will do with this strategy going forward is hard to tell right now. He might decide to play the long game and go away quietly now to return when Zuma finally bows out. Or he might decide to make another run at Luthuli House to try and scare the mothership. But he’s tried that  before and it didn’t work. So we’ll have to wait and see for now. But don’t be fooled about reports of an apology by Malema. They are greatly exaggerated. DM


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