Saturday, 9 July 2011

Making sense of Julius Malema

RW Johnson 28 June 2011

RW Johnson on the ANCYL President's place in South African politics

Julius Malema and the ironies of factionalism 

Julius Malema is now the most magnetic figure in South African politics. He is execrated by most whites, feared by many mainline ANC figures, courted by the powerful and is clearly the idol of the large crowds he attracts. Watching him perform, I realised that he reminded me most of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far right Front National in France. Le Pen, who was equally idolized and execrated, drew crowds like nobody's business.

When he was on TV the crowd in the cafe went quiet. Whether they were Gaullists, Socialists or Communists, they all wanted to watch Le Pen, in fact they couldn't help watching him. He had physical presence - a great big blond bruiser with an eye-patch over one eye, a man rumoured to have personally conducted torture sessions when he was a soldier in Algeria.

Malema cuts a figure which is at once more gross and more mediocre. When he says "I'm not powerful. I'm a nobody from Masakaneng", he's not being modest. He has a sort of childishly porcine face and his stomach already swells out far beyond his trousers, the sign of the well-fed tenderpreneur. Le Pen claimed to have been in the Resistance and he was certainly a Foreign Legionnaire, but Malema has no struggle credentials. Like Le Pen though, he can bellow with the best.

But what really sets them apart from others was that both were nationalists, each pitching their tent on the central nationalist ground. Le Pen would inveigh against illegal immigrants, against the high crime rate - and then explain that the muggers in the Metro were, of course, the same illegal immigrants - and appeal for the return of the "tried and tested guillotine". These crimes were assaults on true-born Frenchmen and why should be ashamed of speaking out for them?

At each point many heads in the cafe would nod, because these were views held by most ordinary Frenchmen, though Le Pen expressed them more forcefully. But then he would, without warning, ask if his listeners had noticed that he had been attacked in Le Monde - an article by Finkelstein, in L'Express - an article by Cohen and again the Nouvel Observateur, an article by Shapiro. As he said this there would be a rising roar of anger from his true followers, catching on immediately to this recitation of Jewish names. "So what have they got in common?" he would roar. "De Gaulle once said of the Jews that they were "clever, arrogant, too sure of themselves" but I would add, if they attack me when I speak for the interests of France, where then do they belong?"

Even in the cafe there would be some murmurs of assent, many awkward silences and a few gasps of horror. For while other conservative politicos might attack illegal immigration and crime, a full-blooded anti-semitic rant like this was way outside the norm. And that's where the habitual excitement came. He would break taboos that all others respected and you never quite knew what he might say next. It was riveting.

Nationalist Outliers

Malema is much the same. Though much younger and less experienced, he has learnt the importance of the sound-bite. He knows that to guarantee him fresh headlines there has to be at least one phrase in every speech where he breaches a taboo. Mainly, of course, he too will pitch himself safely on mainstream nationalist ground so that for the most part a Jacob Zuma or Tokyo Sexwale can sit next to him as he speaks and agree with a lot of what he says and then just look blank when he suddenly makes his sortie, demanding nationalisation of the mines, saying that whites are all criminals, or whatever the latest outrage is.

And when the party elders aren't sitting next to him, it's likely to be some cheeky assault on Zuma, some broad-sword attack on the SACP or Cosatu or even an unexpected compliment to the disgraced Mbeki. Like Winnie Mandela, he has a fine ear for the missed note and the lost chord. He understands exactly those points where the ANC faithful feel uncomfortable about Zuma, Blade Nzimande or Zwelinzima Vavi and that's where he slides the knife in. His followers, who know that no one else on their side (and they aren't listening to the Opposition) will ever make those points, love him not just for breaking the taboo but for articulating those particular points of discomfort. He scratches where it itches and where no one else will scratch.

Such outlier figures are found in most nationalisms - Blaar Coetzee was perhaps Malema's National Party equivalent. Once their movements arrive into government certain necessary compromises occur. Thus Malan, Strydom and Verwoerd were all premiers under a British Governor-General and the Crown for it was not immediately politic to seek a republican form of government or leave the Commonwealth.

A Blaar Coetzee would know, however, that within the Nat body politic there seethed all manner of bitter resentments against the Crown, against the rooineks, against the power and wealth of the mining houses, against Jewish leftists and so on. Coetzee would give voice to all this and would be cheered to the echo for it. The situation of the ANC in government and of Malema is much the same. We have seen the same often in Africa - in Zimbabwe in the 1980s when Mugabe had made his accommodation with the white farmers, Edgar Tekere played this outlier role, frightening the whites in Harare just as much as Malema does here. In Kenya Oginga Odinga played this role vis-a-vis Kenyatta.

In all cases these radical tribunes picked up on the unsatisfied land hunger of Africans and the broken promises made by the new elite as it filled its pockets and rode in pomp as the new waBenzi. Such tribunes, it should be noted, often became rich themselves but they seldom came to power.

The Youth League's Inheritance

Malema's case has its own interesting twists, the first of which is the crucial historical role of the ANC Youth League. All the actors within the ANC drama are keenly aware that from the moment the ANCYL was founded in 1944 it began to play a critical role in the ANC's history as the young warriors of the tribe, uncontrolled in the modern environment by the binding constraints under which they had laboured in traditional society.

The young Turks - Mandela, Sisulu and Tambo - were able first to capture the ANCYL leadership, then devise their own Action Programme, then ram it through the ANC to make it the official party programme, and then depose Dr James Moroka as ANC leader in 1952 when he provoked their ire. Two years later the Youth League threw Moroka out and helped push in Chief Luthuli in his stead.

And it did not stop there. Walter Sisulu, a senior SACP member, was now also ANC Secretary-General, a fact which greatly facilitated the calling of the Congress of the People and the way that white Communists were able to play a key organizing role there and write the resultant Freedom Charter itself. Luthuli, who was banned, could not himself attend the Kliptown Congress, and was deeply suspicious of the Freedom Charter, for he knew full well what the Communists were up to. In particular he expressed open dislike of the Charter's economic clauses which he thought too socialistic.

Under his guidance the Natal ANC argued that the language of the Charter was "good propaganda but...not appropriate to a factual document" and said that "lazy people should expect to go hungry"[1] But the Charter had been presented to him as a fait accompli so, despite his own Christian liberal principles, he accepted it.

Finally, of course, with the formation of MK the SACP, together with the old ANCYL  team of Sisulu, Mandela and Tambo, effectively staged an intra-party coup against Luthuli, installing Mandela and then Tambo as leader. Though Luthuli remained ANC leader till he died, this was a purely nominal title.

The outline, at least, of this epic and successful drive by the ANCYL, is universally known so that there is always the thought that each Youth League leader may carry a field-marshal's baton in his rucksack. In addition, of course, the ANCYL was the first ANC formation to back Zuma against Mbeki and derived great prestige from this success.This greatly magnified the significance of the ANCYL both in their own eyes and those of others.

Malema, of course, trades heavily on this, increasing the excitement of his followers and the dread of those who dislike him. Malema's master-stroke in recent time has been to embrace the Freedom Charter as gospel and thus demand the nationalization of the mines and the expropriation (without compensation) of white-owned land. The key economic clauses of the Freedom Charter - which Luthuli so much disliked - read as follows:-

The national wealth of the country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people.

The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole.

All other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the wellbeing of the people.

All shall have the right to occupy the land wherever they choose.

The land should be "re-divided amongst those who work it".

This is all clear enough, as one would expect. There is no mention of compensation for any act of expropriation of land or industry, and the careful phrasing of such assets being "restored to the people" (ie. to the state, though that is never said) reflects exactly the Communist front tactics of the time. It must be remembered that the white Communists who actually drew the Charter up - men like Rusty Bernstein and Ben Turok - were 1950s Stalinists.

Their phrasing had a pleasingly beneficent sound and they had no difficulty getting it adopted by the willing (and carefully selected) crowd at Kliptown. (The Liberal Party, which would have been able to point out what was going on, stayed away from what they rightly saw as a Communist ramp.) Better still, it was then insisted that the Charter had been carefully made up from all the suggestions sent in by the masses, so the same masses could be sent happily away, believing that they themselves had devised the Charter.

This notion became ANC holy writ and appears, for example, in Sampson's biography of Mandela. This is pure ideology. Bernstein and Turok in their later years were quite open about the role they had played and Sampson was a friend of Bernstein. He must have known the truth, but Holy Writ is Holy Writ.

It should, of course, always be remembered that Bernstein and company, like all South African Communists of the 1950s, had absolutely no thought that their movement would ever come to power, so writing the Charter was purely an exercise in propaganda, with no thought that it might ever be implemented. To the extent that the Charter was real for them at all, it was a prescription for after the socialist revolution, when industry and the land could be re-organized without the complication of a bourgeoisie in the way.

The Constitution in the Sky

In the long years of exile and prison the ANC treated the Freedom Charter as its foundational document. It was the benchmark: you were either a Charterist or you were against the liberation struggle. Those who wished to join the ANC were not asked to assent to the resolutions of this or that party congress: they were asked to agree to the Freedom Charter. In those three decades the Charter became, so to speak, the movement's "constitution in the sky". Later, the Charter was even represented as the foundation document of the National Democratic Revolution though no one at the time had even heard that phrase.

The movement had no power, of course, to enforce its provisions so the Charter had a mystical presence, the Holy Ghost floating somewhere above the liberation struggle. The Charter had extensive provisions about human rights and democracy but this made no difference to the way in which the ANC refused for many years to call a party conference or the way it treated dissidents within its own ranks, particularly within MK. They were imprisoned without trial, allowed no legal representation, tortured and murdered. When such dissidents demanded that the Freedom Charter be respected, this was treated as mere insolence, rather as the Inquisition would have regarded any appeal to scripture by Gallileo.

This habit of having a "constitution in the sky" - which you celebrated, brought out proudly and showed around, enjoying its ringing phrases - but did not actually bother to observe, was extremely comfortable for the ANC leadership. So it was hardly surprising that when South Africa got a real democratic Constitution, the ANC treated it in the same way, proudly showing it around but often not bothering to observe it.

This became apparent as soon as April 1995 when President Mandela sacked his ex-wife, Winnie, as a minister. No one in the presidential office had bothered to read the Constitution which required him to consult others before taking such a step. Winnie had to be laboriously re-instated and then, when consultation had duly taken place, sacked all over again.

Implementing the Charter: Who Stands Behind Malema
Julius Malema realised that this situation gave him a wonderful opening. Wrapping himself in the Freedom Charter he declared that it is, after all, the ANC's programme and that it must thus be implemented. Pointing to the clause that says "The national wealth of the country....shall be restored to the people", he demands the nationalization of the mines. Pointing to the clause which says that the land "shall be re-divided among those who work it", he demands the expropriation without compensation of both white-owned farmland and the mines. He is, of course, careful never to quote the Freedom Charter's first line, "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white".

In addition, he has read the Constitution and, declaring it to be quite untenable for so much of the country's wealth still to be in white hands, demands that the ANC use its two-thirds majority to do away with the property rights clause and any other parts of the Constitution which might stand in the way of a simple Mugabe-like grab for white-owned assets of any kind. This really backs the ANC leadership and even the SACP and Cosatu up into a corner for they have proclaimed the Freedom Charter to the skies and they have also not carried it out. This process really took wing under Mbeki who quietly ignored the Charter, never confronting it head-on or even discussing it at all. Policy was devised by stealth - particularly Gear - and this created Malema's opening. And behind Malema, one is told, stands a vast legion - not only the young unemployed but lumpen elements of every kind.

For a more exact estimate of Malema's following I turned to Professor Laurence Schlemmer who is not only South Africa's senior social scientist but a director of Markdata. His reply - based on his continuous scrutiny of polling data - was as follows:

Mr. Malema does not appear to be very popular among rank-and-file ANC voters, or not yet. My broad impression from field research is that he is not a role model for rank-and-file youth either, who on the whole are worried and frustrated but not militant, and are also cautious because they fear the conflict and disruption of the ANC that he could cause.

He is popular, however, among two large categories of people. First among the highly ambitious and materialistic youth who have been influenced by township gang culture with its flamboyant local leaders, and second among semi-well educated and more seriously aspirant people who believe the route to wealth and success is through connections to politicians and hot-shot new entrepreneurs.

"This latter group", Professor Schlemmer continues,"includes the people who can be seen in the waiting rooms of ministers who hope that if only they can get the minister's attention, they will be able to set up some get-rich-quick scheme.

These people are often at their wits' end as well as at the end of their resources.

They will be slavishly deferential to the minister if they get a chance but bitterly denunciatory if the minister sweeps by and doesn't notice them. They are up for just about  anything and ready to blame the foreigners or the whites for any piece of bad luck they may have.[2]
It should be realised that even this latter group, whom Professor Schlemmer describes so well, do not necessarily have ideological beliefs about nationalizing the banks, the mines or the land. It is more that Malema threatens to shake everything up so that things will come loose, creating openings for opportunists of every stripe.

Mbeki, Father of Factionalism

The ANCYL has emerged into its current prominence as a result of the failure of Mbeki-ism. Mbeki was bent on establishing a complete political and intellectual hegemony rather similar to the political domination of an Nkrumah or Nyerere, in which his theories, slogans and watchwords would be the only political discourse that mattered. It is too easily forgotten how close he came to succeeding. So great was the deference towards him (and fear of him) even in white liberal circles that in 2004 the University of Cape Town bestowed a special leadership award upon him which even had laudatory words for his murderous Aids policy. But Mbeki was still steering the ship of state through the peculiar optic of an ANC narrative which corresponded poorly with reality. It was a very deficient rudder to steer by so it was hardly surprising that he hit the rocks.

In the end Mbeki over-reached himself by dismissing Zuma and attempting to secure a third term. A Nyerere could have got away with that but South Africa is not Tanzania. In the great revulsion this provoked the present politics of ANC factionalism was born. Zuma was fighting for his political life and suddenly all other groups (including the press) realised that there was not just one monolithic ANC any more and this was the condition of freedom for them all. The press became much more free and critical and the ANC crystallised out into Mbeki and Zuma wings within every city, province and state institution. In addition, all manner of little local ANC bosses prospered, each with their own fiefdoms, their own rackets and their own patronage networks. By the end of Mbeki's term the monolithic party he had hoped to build had become a patchwork quilt of factions.

For all these new factions to exist, let alone flex their muscles, Mbeki's centralism had to be defeated, which was why Zuma was able to marshall most of these groups behind him at Polokwane in 2007. But with that centralist threat overthrown, the factions were free. Nothing necessarily linked them to Zuma thereafter and the centrifugal forces were strong. So strong indeed, that after 2009 - when the SACP leadership formally entered the government - strains grew rapidly between the SACP and Cosatu, who had hitherto enjoyed a fraternal relationship comparable to that between the PCF and CGT in France or the PCI and CGIL in Italy.

But now the SACP was in  government and, notoriously, enjoying its perks, while Cosatu remained outside. Increasingly, its leader, Zwelinzima Vavi, saw himself as the tribune of all the dispossessed and saw the SACP leaders as men who had accepted the King's shilling. The crux came over Vavi's biting criticism of the ANC's "predatory elite". No such criticism came from the SACP leaders, Blade Nzimande and Jeremy Cronin, who were, after all, now members of that elite. Rumours multiplied that Vavi, furious that Nzimande had forsaken the SACP's historic role for a mess of potage, might challenge Nzimande for the Party leadership.

Both Cosatu and the SACP were, however, senior members of the Triple Alliance. The ANCYL has no such status: it is just the junior wing of the ANC and has no right to attend or speak when the Big Men of the alliance get together to thrash out the great questions of the day. Malema and his coterie, mindful of the ANCYL's historic role, were unwilling to accept such relegation. They wished to assert their right to drive ANC policy and they hit on the perfect tactic to do so: they would wrap themselves in the Freedom Charter - who could argue with that? - and then use that to insist on the Charter's full implementation, including the nationalization of the banks and mines and the transfer to those who work it. This would embarrass both their ANC seniors and both other major factions. After all, wasn't the Charter supposed to be ANC policy? And if it wasn't, what then was this new policy that had displaced the Charter, and which of their elders would disavow the Charter?

There was no really good answer to this. Mandela had early on disavowed nationalization when he had realised how lethal its effect would be on foreign capital markets. Since then the ANC and its partners had tried Gear, the New Growth Path and endless smaller initiatives. In reality, and despite a great deal of wordy rhetoric about the National Democratic Revolution, their policy was now one of muddling through and they wanted nothing more than  to be allowed to continue to bumble along as before. In 1994 the ANC posters read just "Jobs, jobs, jobs". Unemployment then rose steadily. Every now and again the government unveils a great new initiative to create a million jobs or even five million jobs but after seventeen years the unemployment figures remain far worse than they ever were under apartheid.

Many of the ANC's new laws have quite clearly cut the number of jobs and no one in the leadership seems greatly bothered about this. The latest idea seems to be fund a vast new National Health Initiative by a payroll tax - that is, quite openly, a tax on jobs. This is the economics of Disneyland. Quite transparently, many of the ministers are most concerned to feather their own nests and Zuma to build Nkandla, his harem and the family fortune.

Thus by wrapping itself in the Freedom Charter the ANCYL challenged the government head on: why was it not implementing the Charter? The ANC leadership, who had continued happily to exalt the Charter on high days and holidays, were embarrassed to give the truthful answer which was that time and they had both moved on from the fantasies of white Communists penned over half a century before. Worse, throughout the long years of exile the ANC elite had grown to fear any critique which attacked them from the left and thus left them accused of being "sell-outs" or "counter-revolutionaries".

Such terms had been lethal to many a career so everyone in the ANC had learned to congratulate others and themselves on behaving in the "correct" and "revolutionary" manner. Malema now caught them in their own rhetorical trap and no one was keen to answer him. But the ANCYL was also clearly challenging Cosatu and the SACP - not just wanting status parity with them but criticizing them for having accepted a settlement falling far short of the Freedom Charter. Cosatu and the SACP naturally disliked this and so factional battle was joined. What hurt was that Malema's point was valid.

Even in Slovo's time the SACP had quietly slid away from its commitment to nationalisation - instead the Party liked to talk of "socialization", a deliberately little understood term. For Slovo, like Mbeki, had quietly abandoned the Freedom Charter without saying so. Yet what was a Communist Party all about if it did not favour the nationalisation of industry?

The second in this two part series can be found here. This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit.


[1]    S.Couper, Albert Luthuli: Bound by Faith, p.70.

[2]    Communication from Laurence Schlemmer, 20.6.11.
Hat Tip: JP

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