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A New Crisis in South Africa

Nic Bothma/epa/Corbis
Julius Malema wearing a T-shirt showing Jacob Zuma while campaigning for him in Cape Town during the 2009 presidential race, before their falling-out

Until recently Zuma tolerated Malema’s inflammatory behavior, refusing to criticize his call for nationalization of the mines, for example, though most South African economists believe that a government takeover of the industry would only make it more inefficient. “Zuma’s way of managing the coalition was to be nice to everybody,” says Dawes. “For a long time he did nothing about [Malema].” Then, after it became apparent that Malema intended to mobilize forces to unseat Zuma, the president unleashed the ANC disciplinary committee to censure the Youth League leader. Whether it will result in Malema’s marginalization remains uncertain.

I met Zuma in Braamfontein, at the edge of downtown Johannesburg, on the day that the National Disciplinary Committee was to rule on Malema’s appeal of his suspension. The occasion was the opening of the ten-story headquarters of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which had supported Zuma for the presidency in 2009. Now the powerful union was divided between the pro-Zuma faction, who believed that his pro-business policies had helped the country sidestep the global recession, and the anti-Zuma wing, fed up with ANC corruption and pushing for more labor-friendly legislation. After joining in the singing of apartheid-era ANC anthems, Zuma addressed hundreds of dignitaries on a verandah decorated in gold, red, and black bunting. Many were waiting to hear what he would say about the showdown with Malema, but again, the president sidestepped the issue. Journalists had exaggerated the disagreements between him and certain “people” within the ANC’s Youth League, he told the audience. “They want sensation,” he said, smiling, but “sensation must not undermine content.”

Malema was born in 1981 in a two-room hut in a township outside Polokwane, then known as Petersburg, in South Africa’s Limpopo Province, one of the country’s poorest and least developed regions. His father disappeared when he was an infant: his mother, a domestic worker, suffered from epilepsy. After spilling a pot of boiling water on herself during a seizure, she was forced to give up work. “In African culture, epileptics are regarded as possessed by demons, and she was a social outcast,” according to Malema’s biographer, Fiona Forde.*

Malema grew up destitute on the township’s streets, where he developed a reputation as a risk taker, “full of ‘devilment,’ always looking for mischief,” says Forde. He was nine years old in 1990, when the apartheid government legalized the African National Congress. Lacking a father figure, Malema began spending time with the young male leaders of what Forde calls “the hottest gig in town,” and was soon organizing antigovernment protests, calling for better conditions for students at the township’s poorly funded schools. He joined two rising political organizations, the ANC Youth League and the Congress of South African Students (COSAS), and, when he was twenty, he was elected national president of COSAS.

Malema moved to Johannesburg and worked out of ANC headquarters, where he established important political alliances. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the leader of the ANC’s radical faction, who, during the apartheid era, had called for the “necklacing”—the burning alive with tires soaked in gasoline—of collaborators with the apartheid regime, became an early mentor. “Winnie has a way of spotting troublemakers, and she spotted him,” Forde told me. In 2002, after the South African teachers’ union demanded that school gates be kept locked to keep out crime, Malema led a protest march through the streets of Johannesburg that turned into a looting spree, in which demonstrators gutted shops and torched cars. Not long afterward, Winnie Mandela was accused of corruption and was forced to give up her seat in Parliament. Malema led protests and threatened to burn down the jail to protect her. (The government eventually dropped most of the charges against her.)

Malema returned to Limpopo at the end of 2003 and became provincial secretary of the ANC Youth League. There he again formed strategic alliances with older politicians, including the provincial premier, and began to amass a fortune. Malema set up a company, Junjus 101 (he would become known by a variation on the name, “Juju”), and parlayed his connections into lucrative contracts to build roads and other infrastructure. His company also handed out subcontracts, and allegedly took sizable kickbacks. An investigation by City Paper documented his relationship with David Mabilu, a Soweto-born businessman who poured money into a trust fund that Malema had set up, allegedly in return for help securing Limpopo construction deals. Last year, according to the newspaper, Mabilu spent $2 million at a lavish weekend wedding at a beach resort on Mauritius, which Malema and scores of other South African celebrities and politicians attended.

Another benefactor has been Tokyo Sexwale, the black billionaire and ANC insider who has made no secret of his desire to be South Africa’s next president. According to one source, the entrepreneur has paid Malema handsomely in return for backing those ambitions—giving him cars and cash, paying his taxes, and making him a shareholder in ABSA, South Africa’s biggest bank. (Many political observers believe that Malema turned against Zuma because Sexwale presented him with better business opportunities.)

In recent months the South African media have been filled with reports about Malema’s fondness for $35,000 Breitling watches, Armani clothing, expensive cars, and Johnny Walker Blue Label whisky. Stories have documented his many houses, his lavish parties, and the profits he has made from opportunities open to the ANC’s corrupt elite. According to Forde, the contradiction between Malema’s message and his values exposes his cynicism. “He says, ‘What do the people want to hear?’” she told me. “His aim was to hijack the party, and he believed that the masses would take him there.” But Haffajee says that many of his admirers don’t seem bothered by that contradiction. “Here comes this young man, articulate as hell, very tapped in, with a nose for the continuing suffering of the black majority and a willingness to talk about it,” Haffajee said. “Never mind that he lives this life of a Mafia don. His supporters love it. It’s an aspirational vein in the South African DNA. People say, ‘We can be him.’”

The day after watching Malema speak at the rally in Freedom Park, I drove to Luthuli House in central Johannesburg, where the ANC’s disciplinary committee was preparing to issue its verdict. A huge banner heralding Nelson Mandela’s ninety-third birthday dangled from the fifth floor of the beige concrete tower, which was guarded by riot police. A small group of local reporters and television crews—barred by the ANC from attending the meeting—held vigil across the street, anticipating a possible rampage by ANC Youth League members.

Word soon spread that Malema had refused to attend the meeting; in a sign of “disrespect for the ANC leadership,” according to one veteran journalist I talked to, he was holed up at his villa in Polokwane—one of three houses he owns, along with farms and shares in properties across South Africa—with Youth League cronies. I waited for two hours, and then left. It wasn’t until late that evening that the verdict was announced: the disciplinary committee had expelled Malema from the ANC. He had two weeks to appeal.

Ordinary people I talked to had mixed reactions to Malema’s expulsion. On the day after Malema was divested from the ANC, I drove to Orlando West, the historic neighborhood in Soweto where Nelson Mandela settled as a young man after leaving his rural village in the Eastern Cape, and where Winnie Mandela still resides. Here I met Lebo Maleba, thirty-six, who owns a guesthouse that caters to a growing number of European and American tourists. After the student uprising in Soweto in 1976, when nearly two hundred protesters were shot dead by the police, Maleba’s parents fled to Botswana, and remained there for fourteen years. “The government of Botswana was supporting our liberation struggle, and Malema was wrong to attack it,” he told me, as we drove through a prosperous neighborhood of brick homes recently built by the ANC. “He was a loose cannon.”

Yet Maleba also saw “good things” in Malema. We drove into a former hostel area, where male workers lived during the apartheid era in gender-segregated housing blocks. Today the neighborhood, filled with idle young men playing cards at tables thrown up on litter-strewn streets, remains blighted by joblessness and poverty. “I see a lot of people not working here, and Malema has not been scared to talk about it,” he told me. “He was a fearless young person, and that inspired us.” In November, Maleba joined about five thousand others in a forty-mile march for “economic freedom” led by Malema, which began at the Chamber of Mines in Johannesburg, passed by the stock exchange, and ended at the Union Buildings, the seat of government in Pretoria. In the end, though, Maleba had grown disgusted by the flood of revelations about Malema’s self-indulgence and the dubious sources of his wealth. “The big ANC guys used him, they showered him with money, they made him corrupt, they put him on a different level from the people that he was representing,” says Maleba, who says he expects other young ANC leaders to carry forward Malema’s message—without his moral taint. “He had,” Maleba told me, “become exactly the kind of person that he was fighting against.”

Haffajee, editor of City Press, predicted a rapid eclipse for Malema. ANC leaders, she pointed out, have access to “resources, networks, tenders and money. That gives you power and influence, so people flock around you.” Without those assets, she predicted, Malema would go the way of Winnie Mandela and others who had challenged the ANC—fading into irrelevance and obscurity. “He had more media coverage than Jacob Zuma for the past two years. In his own head he figures he has the ability to move things. But as from tomorrow, his support will peal away.” But Abner Mosaase, the Youth League’s director of international relations, told me that the group would appeal the decision, and if it loses, “We will go door to door and lobby individual leaders of the ANC. We will show them it is not in the interest of the organization to expel Julius Malema. We will not stop.”

Nicholas Dawes, of the Mail & Guardian, believes that the drama over Malema’s future will play out at least until the ANC’s conference in Mangaung at the end of 2012, when the party faithful will determine whether Zuma will be the nominee for president again in 2014. “Malema will operate a kind of guerrilla strategy,” Dawes told me, holding rallies, dispatching Youth League proxies to harass Zuma, and playing the empathy card. According to Dawes, Malema will use his own painful position as a perceived exile from the party as a way of connecting with the difficulties of the voters.

That strategy has already been set in motion. Zuma moved quickly to reestablish control of the ANC, accepting a public apology by Malema but insisting that the Youth League would have to change. “It will have to have a new president that will be able to take the organization forward,” Zuma said. “I don’t think it’s a crisis.” Malema appealed his ouster and rallied Youth League activists, who clashed with Zuma supporters on the normally placid streets of Cape Town.

  1. *

    An Inconvenient Youth: Julius Malema and the “New” ANC (Picador Africa, 2011). 

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