The Freedom Park housing settlement sprawls across a barren, windswept plain on the outskirts of Rustenburg, South Africa, about one hundred miles northwest of Johannesburg. When I arrived there around noon on a searingly hot day in late February, at least ten thousand people had gathered in a dusty field sandwiched between clusters of zinc-walled, tin-roofed bungalows. They had come to hear an address by Julius Malema, the recently ousted president of the African National Congress Youth League, and one of South Africa’s most incendiary politicians.
I crossed a set of railroad tracks and pushed through rows of spectators, many of whom held umbrellas against the sun, and worked my way to a platform, where Malema was about to speak. Beyond the field I could see a pair of huge metal frames that reminded me of Coney Island roller coasters: these, I was told, were support structures for trolleys that carried men deep into the shafts of the Impala Platinum Mine, one of the largest employers in this part of the country.
For the past five weeks, 17,000 rock drillers, many employed by the mine, had been on strike here, demanding higher wages and safer working conditions. In recent days the atmosphere had gotten ugly: a judge had ruled the strike illegal, and Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd., the South African company that owned the mine, had fired the strikers. Three men had been beaten and stabbed to death for attempting to cross the picket lines. With no end in sight, Malema had come to Freedom Park to rally the striking miners, and—it was widely assumed—to gather grassroots support in an increasingly bitter confrontation with the leadership of the ANC, including South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma.
Malema, a pudgy, baby-faced man of thirty-one, stood at the edge of the platform: he wore a black beret tipped at a jaunty angle and a black T-shirt emblazoned with a portrait of one of his heroes, Chris Hani, the chief of the apartheid-era ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, who was assassinated by a white supremacist in April 1993. He was surrounded by cadres from the Youth League, all similarly dressed, and by local leaders, including the Northwest Province premier and deputy secretary-general of the ANC, a stout woman named Thandi Modise. Dozens of police in riot gear flanked the stage, backed up by armored vehicles and paddy wagons. As is always the case when Malema addresses a crowd, the security forces were braced for trouble.
Last September, Malema had been convicted by a South African court of engaging in “hate speech”—after leading his supporters in rousing renditions of the apartheid-era anthem “Shoot the Boer,” aimed at the country’s Afrikaner population. In November, the ANC’s National Disciplinary Committee had fired him as Youth League president and suspended him from the party for five years for casting the ANC “into disrepute.” The charge stemmed from several inflammatory remarks, including advocating the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Botswana for allegedly making a secret deal with the “American imperialists” to host a military base. (A Botswana government spokesman angrily dismissed Malema’s allegation as “bullshit.”) Malema has also frequently praised Zimbabwe’s dictator, Robert Mugabe, and called for the seizure of white-owned farms in South Africa without compensation. After he was suspended, Malema appealed the decision, defied orders from the ANC leadership to step down, and lined up the support of several senior officials, including Thandi Modise. In appearing at Freedom Park he was making clear a bitter split within the ANC over his—and South Africa’s—future.
Malema’s voice crackled over a malfunctioning sound system. “Comrades, we understand your problem,” he told the crowd, to a smattering of cheers. “You must never allow a white person, especially your employer, to divide you. You must always be united.” Then, as he often does when he plays the race card, Malema switched into Zulu, South Africa’s main tribal language, eliciting a roar of approval. In English again, Malema accused the “white capitalist” mining company of failing to provide decent housing, roads, water, and schools for the community, and repeated a call for the nationalization of South Africa’s mines—a demand that has spooked potential foreign investors and, according to Malema’s critics, is largely a scheme intended to help bail out some of Malema’s own rich, mine-owning benefactors.
Malema mocked the ANC leadership for failing to deal with him decisively, and made a plea for sympathy. “The ANC is our parent. How can you be a parent and deny your own kid?” he asked. I worked my way to a staircase leading to the platform, and, hoping to interview Malema, called out to his spokesperson, Floyd Shivambu, who was also facing expulsion from the party. A security man wearing sunglasses and a gray suit thrust himself in front of me. “Move away from the stage,” he ordered. I explained who I was, but he cut me off and put his finger on my chest. “I told you,” he said, “move away.”
Moments later, Malema climbed into the back of a white Range Rover and drove off through the muddy streets of Freedom Park, followed by a convoy of Youth League vehicles and police cars, their lights flashing. Hundreds of enthusiastic spectators chased after the convoy, enveloped in clouds of dust. I caught up with David Makhuie, a recent graduate of the University of South Africa and a member of the local ANC Youth League chapter. I asked him to explain Malema’s appeal. “Malema comes to the people,” he told me. “He raises those sensitive issues that are swept under the carpet—like unemployment.” President Zuma, whom Malema once supported but now ridicules in almost every public appearance, is “one of those toothless leaders…. It is part of our agenda to replace Zuma.” The split, he said, “is getting bigger.”
In January, the African National Congress celebrated its one hundredth anniversary at the Free State Stadium in Mangaung, formerly known as Bloemfontein. Forty thousand ANC supporters, along with forty-six heads of state, cheered President Zuma as he reflected on the ruling party’s long and triumphant struggle against white-minority rule, and praised the legacy of Nelson Mandela, now ninety-three and ailing, and other historic ANC figures. It was an inspiring moment of solidarity, reinforced by the presence of former president Thabo Mbeki, who was making his first public appearance at an ANC gathering since 2008, when he was ousted by Zuma following a power struggle. “This unity across all these divides has strengthened the ANC, and brought us to this phase of celebrating one hundred years of selfless struggle,” Zuma told the crowd.
After nearly two decades in power, the ruling party in Africa’s wealthiest and most influential country has reasons for celebration. The ANC’s popularity remains largely undimmed: it won 61 percent of the vote in 2011 local elections, a slight decline from the 69 percent it achieved in 1994. ANC governments have constructed hundreds of thousands of houses for the poor, extended electricity and clean water across townships and squatter camps, and created a safety net that covers a reported fourteen million people. The net includes free health care for children under six years old and grants for single mothers, the elderly, and the disabled. The black middle class, defined as those who earn monthly salaries of at least $1,000, has risen from near zero at the end of apartheid to between 3.5 and four million people. Violent crime, which spiraled during the last decade, has declined.
The threat of HIV-AIDS was disgracefully denied during the Mbeki era, when at least 350,000 people died because they couldn’t get access to antiretroviral drugs. But an aggressive new health minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, has made the treatment widely available and dramatically brought down infection rates. The ANC “has kicked the wolf from the door [for millions of people],” I was told by Ferial Haffajee, the editor in chief of City Press, a Johannesburg weekly that caters to the rising black middle class. “You can understand why the party keeps getting voted in with a substantial majority.”
Increasingly, however, the ANC’s successes have been overshadowed by its failures. One third of South Africans are unemployed, and the jobless rate for those under eighteen is 70 percent. A government plan to buy land from white farmers and redistribute it to poor blacks has never gotten off the ground. The education system is “disastrously bad,” says Nicholas Dawes, the editor of the Mail & Guardian, South Africa’s most respected newspaper, with test scores dropping and many teachers considered unqualified. The gap between South Africa’s richest and poorest remains one of the highest in the world. And ANC membership is now regarded less as an opportunity for “selfless struggle” than for self-enrichment. “The ANC has become a cash cow,” I was told by Chris Vick, a former aide to Tokyo Sexwale, South Africa’s minister of human settlements, who has come to epitomize the “Tenderpreneurs”—well-connected black multimillionaires who have used their government ties to secure lucrative construction and service contracts. “The ANC is seen as the way to get tenders, to get access, to get a good job in government.”
In addition, Zuma has allegedly used South Africa’s intelligence services to undermine his ANC rivals, threatened to curtail the powers of the Constitutional Court, and pushed for legislation that would dramatically limit freedom of expression. In a recent interview in the London Guardian, Nadine Gordimer called these proposed media laws “an updated version of the gags under apartheid.” They include a tribunal that would require journalists to seek permission before investigating the activities of government ministers and the Protection of State Information bill. Both, she said, are intended to protect a corrupt party elite, who have “betrayed all they fought for.”
Now the ANC is in the midst of a crisis, torn between the consensus-building approach embodied by Zuma—an outwardly genial figure once ridiculed as “not having an ideological bone in his body”—and the racially tinged politics espoused by the populist Malema and his growing number of followers. “The fact that the average life expectancy of white South Africans is more than thirty years higher than the life expectancy of their black counterparts is evidence that our people are facing extinction because of racialized poverty inherited from apartheid,” Malema said recently.
This was one of a series of charged remarks that contain a core of truth and have unsettled many of the country’s 4.5 million whites. Malema has attacked Zuma repeatedly as a supporter of the status quo—“We need more decisive and sophisticated leadership to understand the current stage of the struggle,” he told a Youth League gathering in February—and he has encouraged supporters to harass Zuma at public appearances. Youth League members have mocked Zuma as “shower man” and pantomimed a spraying nozzle, a mocking reference to Zuma’s comment, during his trial for raping the daughter of a colleague six years ago, that he circumvented the risk of HIV-AIDS by taking a shower after sex. (Zuma claimed the sex was consensual, and he was acquitted.)