Understanding the Malema Debacle

An analysis to the Malema-Zuma-relationship

(Editor: Leon Schreiber*)

The circumstances surrounding Julius Malema’s suspension has been extensively covered in the South African media. But just how did such an embarrassing situation arise? Why has an organisation with a proud history of integrity reached a point where its representatives are openly calling for regime change in democratic countries, provoking racial tensions and publicly insulting its President? And why did the top six leaders of the African National Congress (ANC), including President Zuma, decide to hold an embarrassing press conference last week where they were preaching unity, while it was obvious to all observers that there are great tensions between them? The answer is to be found at the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference.

President Jacob Zuma is no longer supported by Julius Malema. The suspended ANCYL president is using the chaotic lack of discipline & respect and embarrassing the ANC leadership. (Quelle: flickr/The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa + GCIS)

President Jacob Zuma is no longer supported by Julius Malema. The suspended ANCYL president is using the chaotic lack of discipline & respect and embarrassing the ANC leadership. (Quelle: flickr/The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa + GCIS)

It was during the Polokwane conference that Zuma’s camp let the Malema genie out of the bottle. They had identified the populist talents of the newly-elected ANC Youth League (ANCYL) leader, and these talents were very useful to Zuma at the time. Zuma’s supporters sat back and watched as Malema was given free rein to use whatever tactics were necessary to get rid of Zuma’s opponent at the time, Thabo Mbeki. The important point is that there were no limits to the lengths Malema was allowed to go, as illustrated by his infamous call that the ANCYL is prepared to ‘kill for Zuma’. But there was more to it than just this rhetorical flourish. Zuma’s camp allowed Malema to completely assassinate Mbeki’s character. He was also allowed to make pronouncements on the corruption and rape investigations which were being carried out against Zuma at the time. However, in the process of using Malema to advance his own political agenda (seeking the position of President), Zuma effectively sacrificed all discipline and integrity. Indeed, if integrity and discipline were still present within the ANC, Malema would never have gotten away with claiming that the alleged victim of Zuma’s rape ‘had a nice time’ whiles the case was still sub judice. In short, political expediency was regarded by Zuma to be more important than the principles of the ANC. In 2007, the ANC spectacularly surrendered all of its principles in the most public of fashions. And from Zuma’s perspective it had worked like a charm. The corruption and rape charges were controversially dropped and he was free to be elected as President of the ANC, while his opponent Mbeki was unceremoniously tossed out to sea.

During the ensuing four years, Malema has steadily lost favour with Zuma and his supporters. It appears as if Zuma initially believed that there would be no consequences to allowing discipline and respect to collapse. He may perhaps even have felt vindicated when Malema started making racist pronouncements against whites, because it gave the ANC an easy scapegoat to blame for its lack of progress in fighting poverty and inequality. If Malema could get young black South Africans to blame whites for the lack of service delivery and their continuing poverty, then the ANC’s hold on power would not be threatened by its own incompetence. This explains why the ANC initially did not even attempt to reprimand Malema for his clearly racist behaviour – it continued to work in their favour. However, the honeymoon came to an abrupt end when Malema started openly criticising Zuma, even ironically comparing him to Mbeki in an unfavourable light. Never mind his calls for nationalisation, racial violence and perhaps even regime change in Botswana (the ostensible cause for his suspension) – it was Malema’s decision to attack the Zuma camp (which includes powerful individuals like the ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe) which finally led to the marriage collapsing.

The embarrassing events of the past few months are very easy to understand when keeping the context of the Zuma-Malema relationship in mind: now that Malema has lost his value to Zuma, the ANC is trying to put the genie back into the bottle. But they will find that it is much harder to force Malema’s considerable girth back into the proverbial lamp than it was to let his (skinnier) self out back in 2007. This is because reinstating discipline and integrity will be almost impossible after it was sacrificed on the altar of Zuma’s quest for political power in 2007 for the entire world to see. The result is that Malema will continue to use the chaotic lack of discipline and respect which now rules in the ANC to embarrass the leadership. He will defy his suspension(s). He will openly criticize Zuma. He will call for a new ANC President to be elected in December. Why? Because Zuma had opened the floodgates at the Polokwane conference. And now the torrent may very well wash him away to the ocean, where he would join Mbeki in floating around aimlessly as pieces of South African political driftwood.

*Leon Schreiber is a South African PhD student in Political Science at the Free University of Berlin in Germany. The views expressed are his own. Follow Leon on Twitter @Die_Schreiberei

4 Antworten zu “Understanding the Malema Debacle

  1. There are lots of things going on right now in the ANC,as far as the Youth laegue is concerned its not yet over,the suspenion and expulsion of youth league members does not mean anything as all the iisues can only be finilised in the conference in Mangaung. We al know the ANC is very devided right now there is Zuma camp and also motlanthe camp,whichbis favaoured by the youth laegue with many intellectuals,while the Zuma camp mostly Zulu leaders in different organisational positions,i dont tink will stand a chance and this is where members of the youth league might come bck strongly and haunt Zuma.aka showerman by the youth league members.he will be recalled just like Mbeki for using state resouces to fight his opponent within the organisation itself..It ont work i believe.

  2. Am a member of the ANC but under Zuma am afraid we dont have any direction we seem to be going.its E tolls & petrol hikes and the man who hve been regarded as champion of the poor is keeping mum.it seems as the old story is back again,“working together we can do more corruption.

  3. Jacques de Vries

    Nicely put. I agree that it is now the ANC’s most unenviable task of finding a solution to the uncomfortable situation that they have created for themselves. It has been mentioned in comment above, that the ANC is a ‚broad church‘, to which I agree wholeheartedly, a body that is as diverse and representative of the nation that it leads. Its elders, and their supporters, while perhaps in the minority, are in a tenuous position regarding the loose cannon that is Malema. It is a tenuous position, but, it is at a commanding height, and this affords some advantage with which to mitigate the damage done by the unfocused populist puppet whose strings they attempt to cut. The focus should shift perhaps, in the twilight of Malema’s fame, to those elements within the ANCYL whom he represents and who embody similar rhetoric, who may capitalise on their leaders‘ character assasination and the things he has come to be known for. Now the stage has been set in the wake of the centenary celebrations and before Mangaung to see not what Zuma stands for, but who is left standing after this landmark meeting.

  4. This is all well written. And since Polokwane 2007 the Malema story goes as described above. But, wouldn’t it be more interesting to focus on political content, to shed some light on the political and ideological concepts behind the power struggle inside the ANC? The ANC has often been described as a so called „broad church“. Indeed the organisation is not homogenous, it reflects the powers and classes that determine South African society as a whole. Even more so since the old National Party diluted into the ANC ranks. So why should the (ideological) struggles in society not take place in the ANC itself? Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to shed some light on this aspect? There have always been ideological power struggles inside the ANC. But, the binding glue of the common enemy is gone. The fight between traditionalists, nationalists, neo-liberals etc.is in the open. Malema does not stand for himself. For what (not who) does he stand?

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