Why setting back Julius Malema is important

Julius Malema has received a body blow and is reeling about the ring.

I mostly want to discuss why this is important – beyond the obvious reasons that drive the obsessive media focus on the grandiose little ANC Youth League President.

But first a bit of context:

As I write Julius Malema is in the process of being disciplined in the ANC.  He has sailed closer and closer to the wind in the last few weeks and, it seems, a dunking is now inevitable.

There are three main charges:

  • On a Zanu PF platform in Zimbabwe last week he attacked the MDC and praised the Zimbabwe “land reform” programme and used the opportunity to promise economy wide nationalisation in South Africa – this a few days after President Jacob Zuma had returned from trying to broker an agreement between the MDC and Zanu PF;
  • He sung – in defiance of a court ruling and of specific orders from Jacob Zuma – the old “struggle” song that includes the words “kill the boer, kill the farmer” – this transgression  became more serious when Eugene TerreBlanche was brutally murdered by young black workers on his farm;
  • Each of these incidents received specific sanction from the ANC, but the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back came when Malema was (quite bombastically) giving an interview at ANC headquarters on his triumphal return from Zimbabwe. For a variety of reasons Malema seemed to lose his temper and, in a bullying and autocratic fashion, threw out a BBC journalist. Catch that unsettling episode here. For the ANC, where form remains important, this rudeness was a step too far.

Julius Malema and the policy he represents is on the back foot. His behaviour has finally caused those who have backed and protected him within the ANC (particularly Tokyo Sexwale) to start to put distance between themselves and the Youth League leader.

His relative isolation is reinforced by a growing rebellion against him within the ANC Youth League – which he appears to be only just managing to control through bullying and barnstorming tactics.

So why do we so minutely follow the two steps forward, one step backward advance and retreat of Julius Malema and his cronies?

For me – as a ‘professional political analyst’ (someone whose non-evidential claim is that his political views are subjected to more rigorous intellectual testing than those of your average Joe or Sipho in the comments pages of timeslive.co.za before their airing … hmmm) – there is a real and legitimate reason. The Malema grouping is fighting to control the African National Congress and, in my opinion, the African National Congress remains, for better or for worse,  the institution most able to affect South Africa’s future.

South African politics is overwhelmingly dominated by the ANC and nothing indicates that we are in a process of moving away from this domination. Our politics is racialised and people tend to vote their ethnic identity. The ANC has a de facto monopoly on the banners and flags and songs and dead heroes of the liberation struggle; and it has unprecedented capacity to spread goodies around its supporters and potential supporters. This combination – being the party of liberation and being able dispense the national largesse – kept the Mexican Partido Revolucionario Institucional or PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party) in power for over 70 years (sometimes with a different name) and it is not inconceivable that the ANC could rule for as long or longer – especially given the additional dimension of racial solidarity.

So, the setback suffered by Julius Malema and his cronies is important because this is the most dangerous wing of the most voracious faction within the ANC. It is not for nothing that Malema has been singled out by the hysterical and monomaniacal mass media in South Africa. His skill at taking rents out of an economy trying to transform itself is by no means unique within this or previous versions of the ANC, but it is his  astute use of racial appeals to the poorest black South Africans to cover, disguise and justify his tenderpreneurial flare that makes him formidable.

I do not think it is all over for Julius Malema. A person of this political skill and focus is not going to be wiped off the face of the political realm because of a setback like this one. I expect him to be disciplined by the ANC and I expect that this will set him back a few years.

It is, of course, important to point out that Julius Malema is just an extreme version of something that has taken hold of the ANC at a very deep level. I am under the impression that the first thing the Zuma faction did when it came to power after Polokwane was change tender boards throughout the country. Do you think that was to clean them up after Mbeki’s depredations? I think not.

So closing down Malema is a necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition for cleaning up the ruling party and government. That would entail handing over to the ten or so people in the SACP and Cosatu leadership who are not themselves armpits deep on the take – and, unfortunately, they would begin paving the road to hell almost immediately.

So is Juju, as he is not very affectionately known by the aforementioned media, gone?

He is 29 years old which will make him 36 at the ANC’s elective conference in 2017 and 41 at the elective conference in 2022. He has got a lot of time.

I can almost hear, echoing the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1994 The Terminator,  the battered Julius Malema growling: “I’ll be back”.

I, for one, am not holding thumbs that the next manifestation is going to be any better. In fact a Julius Malema, older and wiser, tempered in the fires of adversity – goodness, now there is a scary thought.