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Just what South Africa doesn’t need

2011 September 18
by Paul Vallely

If you have not heard of Julius Malema you should have. The international business magazine Forbes last week named the 30-year-old as one of Africa’s 10 most powerful young men. Next week he could tear apart South Africa’s ruling party, possibly bringing about the downfall of the country’s president Jacob Zuma, now aged 69, in a battle for the soul of the nation which could ripple through the continent and well beyond.

Malema is the president of the youth wing of the African National Congress. In the days before they fell out President Zuma described him as a future president of South Africa. But now the populist young firebrand – who has won wide support among the poor with his calls to nationalise the mines and seize white-owned land without compensation – is being brought before the ANC’s disciplinary committee charged with bringing the party into disrepute.

President Zuma’s authority is on the line. If he fails, the nation which has so successfully made a peaceful transition from white to black rule could be plunged into political and economic chaos.

Julius Malema is a throwback to the worst stereotypes about African leaders. He is charismatic, populist and reckless. He has fits of temper, will not tolerate dissent and manipulates elections. He is shamelessly racist. He defends the human rights record of Robert Mugabe in neighbouring Zimbabwe. He has attacked Chinese investors as people who “bring nothing to the country”. He is being investigated by three separate authorities on allegations of corruption.

His plans for the overhaul of the economy to benefit the poor, by expropriating white businesses – and his leadership last year of a delegation to Venezuela to study the country’s nationalisation programme – have sent shivers through the international community. So much so that South Africa’s share of foreign direct investment has fallen 70 per cent in the past two years.

In the past doubts have been raised about Jacob Zuma who was also seen as a corrupt and misogynistic populist – widely ridiculed for his belief that a vigorous shower after sex would stop him contracting the HIV virus. But by comparison with Julius Malema he looks a model of statesmanship and macroeconomic seriousness. It is as if South Africa is on some terrible downward leadership trajectory from Mandela to Mbkei to Zuma to Malema.

Malema supporters burning Zuma T-shirts last week bode ill for the leadership elections of the ruling party of the continent’s economic powerhouse next year. Whoever is elected will become South Africa’s president after the 2014 elections.Once Malema steered his supporters to secure the election of President Zuma. But the two men have fallen out to such an extent that last July Malema appeared before an ANC disciplinary body charged with sowing divisions in the party. He was given a two year suspended sentence. But he has breached those conditions by, among other things, calling for the overthrow of the democratically elected government of neighbouring Botswana which he has accused of being a “puppet” of “imperialist” Western powers. Last week Malema was convicted of inciting racial hatred by routinely singing an old apartheid-era song containing the line Shoot the Boer accompanied by juvenile machine-gun actions while singing.

Malema’s response was to the verdict revealing. The judge, who was white, said that in post-apartheid South Africa, all citizens must treat each other equally. He urged the ANC to find new ways of celebrating its past which did not threaten social harmony. Malema riposted that it was not for a white man to tell blacks how to remember their history.

“Once again we find ourselves subjected to white minority approval. Apartheid is being brought through the back door,” he said. “We have reached a time,” he added, calling the judge a  ‘coloniser’,  when “we must place the oppressor where he belongs.” The court system must be reformed, he said.

So is it just a bully-boy threat? Or is there something legitimate to the notion that economic and social vested interests are subverting democratic progress in South Africa?

One of Malema’s more thoughtful supporters, Gugu Ndima, aged 26, wrote this week: “We still live in a highly divided society, one polarised by unemployment, poverty and tacit racism – a society in which one formation uses state and academic institutions to protect and preserve its existence and supremacy”.

To Ndima, who is a communist, Shoot the Boer is now a cry for “dismantling a system of white monopoly capital”. The down-trodden masses intuitively understand that the song today “speaks of the fight against a system that still preserves an unequal socio-economic status quo for the benefit of a minority elite.” To them South Africa’s celebrated “rainbow nation” is more of a myth and aspiration than a reality – which is why a court portrays their mechanism of protest as “a bunch of barbarians … led by a piper singing a mere song”.

Malema understands this too. That is not to say that he is not a rogue and an opportunist. His racism is overt; when a white BBC journalist challenged him at a news conference last year, Malema shouted that he was a “bloody agent” with a “white tendency,” and pointed to the reporter’s crotch, making disparaging remarks about his genitals. Malema knows that kind of thing plays well with his supporters.

So, too, does his extravagant lifestyle, his swish cars and flashy watches and his eight properties including an Italian-designed luxury home in Johannesburg’s plush shopping capital, Sandton. The wealth of this one-time poor boy is considerable and unexplained, which is perhaps why state prosecutors, the auditor general, an internal auditor and PricewaterhouseCoopers, are investigating him on allegations of fraud and corruption over state contracts for himself and relatives worth tens of millions of rand.

But many of his followers think his lavish living is appropriate to his Big Man status. “What’s wrong with Juju making money,” they say. It is what they would do themselves. The crowd loved it recently when in a squatter camp this saviour of the poor cut a cake delivered in a Porsche by a celebrity known for eating sushi off naked women.

This is what makes Julius Malema so dangerous. He subconsciously articulates the grievances and aspirations of that large class of young South Africans who feel they have been cheated of the material fruits of political freedom. South Africa has now overtaken Brazil as the country with the widest gap between rich and poor. Jacob Zuma’s plans to halve the unemployment rate, creating 5 million jobs in the next decade, now seem a pipe-dream. When Malema says “no coloniser brought land to Africa” and asks “Why should I pay for what I own?” he is saying the unsayable for them. So they cheer his every word, even if it is economically illiterate nonsense which would bring the country to its knees.

Like them he is prepared to stake all on one desperate gamble. In the squatter camp he said of his confrontation with Zuma and the elders of the ANC: “If we have come to the end, let it be so”. Yet if Malema is cast into political oblivion this week the section of society for whom he speaks will remain, disillusioned and disaffected as before. And what will happen then?

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