Whatever you think of Julius Malema – dangerous demagogue; rabble rousing populist; brave political outsider – he is hard to ignore. But what does the Youth League leader’s recent suspension from the African National Congress mean for Malema’s political career and the struggle for power within the ruling party? Here Sarah-Jane Cooper-Knock, a D.Phil candidate in International Development at Oxford University, and Janice Winter, an Oxford graduate and Media Researcher, break down the fall-out from Malema’s fall from grace.
Julius Malema, President of the ANC’s Youth League, has never been a man to shy away from drama. This weekend, facing the outcome of the National Disciplinary Committee of Appeals, he was centre-stage.
In November last year, “Juju” and the League’s spokesperson, Floyd Shivambu, were suspended from the ANC for“sowing division” in its ranks and bringing the organization into “disrepute”. Several other members of the League faced party disciplinary hearings on lesser charges. Predictably, Malema and his colleagues appealed. This weekend, all of the major indictments were upheld, although the accused will be allowed to challenge the length of their sentences within the next few weeks.
This drama has unfolded as relations between Malema and President Zuma have disintegrated. Previously key to the President’s ascent, Malema has recently been campaigning for Zuma’s enigmatic deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, to replace him. Pundits have been quick to suggest a link between the disciplinary hearing and the upcoming party elections, but the relative power and popularity of those involved remains contentious.
Malema’s notoriety rests heavily on his populist promises to nationalize the country’s mines and farms. Reports of his mass popularity are based on the assumption that those still excluded from the dividends of a ‘free’ South Africa would be eager to jump on Malema’s bandwagon. If this were true, his backing would be formidable indeed: a recent report by the South African Institute of Race Relations claims that half of those now aged between 25 and 34 are unlikely ever to find a job; the number of informal settlements has doubled in the last ten years; and South Africa’s Gini co-efficient is on the rise.
But it seems that Juju’s magic has not, in fact, enchanted the marginalised masses. A rare poll suggests that only 17% of the nation supports him; far less than might have been predicted by the pundits who claim he is a“huge political operator” with “mass support”. As his fate hung in the balance on Saturday, only a handful of supporters arrived to show their support outside the ANC’s nerve centre, Luthuli House. Like Malema himself, many commentators seem to have overestimated his support and underestimated his nemesis.
Zuma has cultivated a persona as an open, affable, if somewhat hapless, man-of-the-people. Taking the lead from South Africa’s most celebrated satirical cartoonist, Zapiro, Malema repeatedly ridiculed the President by makingthe hand symbol of a shower over his head: a reference to Zuma’s rape trial in 2008 during which he claimed that he could not have contracted HIV because he had taken a post-coital shower.
But Malema’s game of political charades belies Zuma’s political edge, sharpened in exile as head of counter-intelligence in the ANC’s Department of Intelligence and Security and in the subsequent peace negotiations that brought to an end the IFP-ANC conflict in KwaZulu-Natal. Although something of a side show in the drama of the South African transition, some have claimed that the negotiations in KZN demanded more political prowess than the country’s constitutional negotiations. A combination of conciliation and ruthlessness has allowed Zuma to secure the prize of ANC president. Malema has now been on the receiving end of both.
Yet, as is usually the case in the ANC, this is a rift that goes beyond two individual politicians. On being elected ANC president, Zuma declared himself an empty vessel regarding policy priorities, to be directed by members of the party. Whilst no doubt strategic hyperbole, the statement highlights what much analysis of the disciplinary hearing overlooks: the factional nature of the conflict and the large cast of political and economic actors involved behind the scenes. For ultimately this is the ANC’s drama, and the power of our protagonists depends on the degree to which they can read and ride the shifting factions within the party.
These factions are by no means fixed: Fikile Mbalula is now firmly in the anti-Zuma faction, whereas at the party conference in Polokwane in 2007 he was the voice of Zuma’s campaign; Malusi Gigaba was Mbeki’s man at Polokwane and is now rising fast in Zuma camp; Malema was key to Mbeki’s downfall and now lauds him as the country’s finest leader; Zuma hailed Malema as a promising future president but is now stripping him of any party influence.
These factional shifts testify to the fact that ideology is not a key driver of intra-party divisions. Whilst policy differences undoubtedly exist between some party members, these have not defined the current divides: although Zuma may now dismiss Malema as an extremist, he too has previously made references to the possible nationalization of mines. And while Malema was disciplined for openly endorsing Mugabe’s fast-track land reform, Zuma’s administration has since declared the ANC’s active support for a ZANU-PF victory in Zimbabwe’s 2012 elections. In fact, on occasion, many in the party benefited from having a figure who could raise issues and agendas that were too radical for the ruling party to endorse openly. Positioned as a youth activist leader, his diatribes could start provocative debates while allowing the party some distance from the criticism that ensued. With Malema calling for the instant and uncompensated nationalization of mines, an inquiry into the feasibility of nationalization suddenly appeared reasonable. That said, as he became more enamored with his role of agent provocateur – calling for the overthrow of Botswana’s government, for example – Malema undoubtedly provoked a real discomfort amongst some of the party’s more moderate members, who demanded that he be disciplined.
Thus, when Malema challenged the political and economic interests at the heart of Zuma’s faction, decisive action could be taken. The disciplinary hearings simultaneously undermined the anti-Zuma faction by denying them the influence of Malema and strengthened Zuma’s own faction ahead of the elections by allowing him to demonstrate firm leadership, restore a vision of party discipline, and commit to a centrist policy stance. The foregrounding of centrist Malusi Gigaba and the sacking of controversial cabinet figures such as Bheki Cele and Sicelo Shiceka are further examples of this strategy that now focuses on the very public silencing of Malema.
But whilst Malema seems set to drop from the cast of ANC actors, much remains uncertain. A great deal rests on the political gamble that Malema poses little threat in exile outside the ANC. This gamble pays off only if he is unable to gain elite or mass leverage through political conviction, sympathy or manipulation. It is not clear whether Malema will ultimately concede his political defeat and adopt a more conciliatory tone in the hopes of re-entering the party in the future or whether he will try to capitalise on his current position as media magnet and political victim in order to mobilise outside the ANC. Moreover, Malema has long claimed to have mud to sling at other leading lights within the party. Whether he can use this leverage, and how he will choose to do so, is currently unclear. Then there are those waiting in the wings, hoping to take the role of Youth League president. Malema’s understudy, the equally militant Ronald Lamola, is considered the “ideal candidate” by many within the party, but will face some opposition from the likes of Pule Mabe, who is keen to distance himself from Malema’s legacy. Finally, those endorsing Motlanthe for ANC president must revise their strategies following the loss of their most vocal member. For now, Zuma is in a strong position and a second term looks more secure; but with 10 months until Mangaung, the show is far from over.