Few characters in South African politics have caused as much controversy as Julius Malema: how popular is this populist? What effect will his brand of politics have on the future of the country? Following his recent trial and broader tribulations, DiA Editor SJ Cooper-Knock asks what lies ahead for this ‘economic freedom fighter’.
Last week, in the docks of the regional court in Polokwane, Julius ‘Juju’ Malema had racketeering added to his current charge of money-laundering. The former President of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) is being charged in connection with an improperly administered government tender from which he allegedly profitted millions. The case has now been postponed until April next year.
To say that this has been an eventful year for Malema would be something of an understatement. Juju, who gained notoriety calling for nationalisation of the mines and singing his favoured theme tune, ‘Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer’, was suspended from the ANC for five years last November for ‘sowing divisions’ in the party and bringing it into disrepute. As Adam Habib argued in an interview with Democracy in Africa, given that Malema had hardly been a compliant introvert up to this point, his suspension smacked more of realpolitik than an unavoidable need for redress. Having been instrumental in Zuma’s rise, Malema had become one of his most vicious critics and was being sidelined as such. Crying victim, Malema appealed the verdict to the Disciplinary Committee of the ANC. As he knew, that move was always going to be a political gamble. It was one he lost. In April this year, the Committee escalated his suspension to an expulsion, and Malema found himself outside the country’s only governing party since 1994.
But, excluding a political threat is not the same as neutralising them. Undeterred, Malema has since played the role of the unjustly injured with relish. Within the ANC he retained friendships within the Youth League and within the upper tier of the party, notably ANC Treasurer Mathews Phosa, Minister of Sport and Recreation Fikile Mbalula, and Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale. Meanwhile, Malema continued to cultivate grass roots support, taking his brand of political and economic populism on tour. In the last few months, Juju has appeared alongside the abused and disaffected of South Africa, from the miners of Marikana who lived through the massacre of 34 of their number this August, to Lenasia where residents were left without homes when land intended for government development was illegally sold on. As members of the tripartite alliance (the governing alliance of South Africa which includes the ANC, COSATU AND SACP) continue to exploit and exclude people in the country, Malema’s roadshow has not been short of destinations.
With support from above and below, it seemed possible that Malema would use the upcoming party conference in Mangaung to challenge his expulsion and re-enter the political fold. However, as the picture of party power comes into focus ahead of Mangaung, Malema’s place within it is in question.
First, his hold on the ANCYL seems to be waning. True, residents from his home province of Limpopo held a night vigil in his honour last Thursday ahead of his court appearance; and some ANCYL members still refer to him as ‘commander-in-chief of economic freedom fighters’. But support in the remainder of the league is increasingly conflicted, as spats between Malema and the current leader, Ronald Lamola, demonstrate: whilst, initially, the ANCYL declared it would support Malema through his trial, Lamola claimed last week that the league had ‘no case to answer’ in court. Therefore, he argued, they would not get involved in proceedings. Those wanting to support Malema would have to do so in their own name, not the Youth League’s. In response, Malema labelled Lamola a ‘sell-out’ and a ‘traitor’ who would shortly be announcing his support for Zuma. Such a leader, he claimed, could never be a true head of the ANCYL. Returning a rally in this political ping-pong, the ANCYL issued a formal statement claiming that Malema’s ‘bloodcurdling remarks are not worthy of a leader’.
Meanwhile, Floyd Shivambu, the ANCYL spokesperson who was suspended along with Malema, has called for both Malema and Lamola to put their differences aside in favour of the ‘important task of taking the revolution to another level’. Such statements are as important for what they do not say as what they do: Shivambu is one of Malema’s closest allies. His interjection into the dispute seems to recognise that, for all his ability to crowdsurf the problems of the nation, Malema needs the institutional support for the ANCYL to guarantee his political future.
But it is not just within the League that Malema’s support is coming under fire. In fact, the outbursts above are intimately linked to the wider power battle within the ANC on the road to Mangaung and how the ANCYL align themselves within it. Malema needs key sponsors within the upper echleons of the ANC to engineer a meaningful comeback. However, as Zuma solidifies his claim to a second term, these are becoming increasingly hard to come by. This sentiment seemed to be confirmed by a statement made by Gwede Mantashe on Tuesday. Mantashe claimed that Malema’s expulsion from the ANC would not be part of the formal agenda at the conference, although it could (like any issue) be raised from the conference floor. That means that Malema has to rely upon support of delegates drawn from the various branches of the ANC. As of the weekend, however, Zuma has the support of 2,259 delegates at the conference – eight more than he would need to secure a second term, and potentially enough to stymy any mass support for Malema’s restitution. That is not, of course, to say that Mangaung is a done deal. There is always room for the unexpected at ANC party conferences. Nonetheless, Malema’s chances of political resurrection within the organisation are looking increasingly slim.
Undoubtedly, Malema strikes a chord with many of those to whom the ANC’s 1994 electoral slogan ‘A Better Life For All’ seems little more than a cruel joke. But convincing this populous that his current charges are purely politically manufactured will be tough. Tougher yet, will be the task of maintaining a meaningful political profile outside the ANC, a party that many have ridiculed, derided and despised but none have yet defeated.