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A New Crisis in South Africa

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Nelius Rademan/Camera Press/Redux
Julius Malema during an ANC Youth League march, Johannesburg, October 27, 2011. Malema, who was fired as president of the Youth League in November 2011 and expelled from the ANC in February 2012 for bringing the party ‘into disrepute’ with his inflammatory and racially tinged populism, has repeatedly attacked South African President Jacob Zuma, leading to a bitter split within the ANC.

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.)

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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.

As Malema continues to defy the ANC leadership, Zuma’s own future as ANC leader is looking vulnerable. He faces significant opposition from within three former sources of support: COSATU, the trade union congress, South Africa’s Communist Party, and the Youth League, as well as from several contenders for the presidency, including Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, Malema’s favorite for the job.

“Jacob Zuma is a warm, charming man, but he is not a leader,” says Helen Zille, premier of the Western Cape and a founder of the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s largest opposition party. Zille and other political observers believe that Zuma could well face a revolt in the next electoral conference—much like the one he led in 2007 that resulted in Thabo Mbeki’s ouster.

But the removal of the president is still a long shot: he has South Africa’s security and intelligence services under tight control, and Motlanthe’s popularity doesn’t yet extend much beyond the Youth League. A successor could well reinstate Malema and endow him with more power. However his last-ditch appeal turns out, the young rabble rouser, who his biographer Fiona Forde calls “the most lethal politician in South Africa,” is unlikely to fade quietly from the scene.

—March 28, 2012

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

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