If the ANC does poorly in the local government election, President Jacob Zuma will get the blame.
He will then face a tough battle to retain the leadership of the party at its next elective conference in 2012. Already, rumours and, more ominously, crime intelligence reports, suggest there is a camp within the party plotting his downfall, many from the very group that facilitated his rise to power.
Reports would have the group include the controversial and outspoken ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema, as well as former Zuma backers Fikile Mbalula, David Mabuza, Cassel Mathale, Bathabile Dlamini and the irrepressible Tony Yengeni.
The list also includes a number of fairweather operators such as Tokyo Sexwale, Paul Mashatile, Enoch Godongwana and Thandi Modise. All have denied the claims.
However, if the ANC does better than expected at the polls, credit will go to Malema, who has recently added that missing spark to the ANC’s otherwise listless election campaign. In fact, whichever way things go, the young lion will be sitting pretty.
Everywhere he goes, adoring fans – yes, fans – flock to hear him speak in messianic fashion. And as with any good populist, his message is a simple one: whites have the stuff and blacks should take it from them.
“They (whites) took our land without paying. Once we agree they stole our land, we can agree they are criminals and must be treated as such,” he told cheering supporters at a rally outside Kimberley on Saturday. No nuance required. No room for doubt. And depending on the audience, the objects of repossession can be either jobs, minerals, commerce or houses. Just fill in the blank.
A cyber joke recently doing the rounds suggested the youth league’s economic policy could be summed up by the famous Queen anthem: I want it all, and I want it now. But the joke cuts too close to the bone to be funny.
Malema – or “Juju-baby”, as he has been dubbed on the campaign trail – has successfully shifted the focus of many away from service issues.
Despite the DA’s best efforts to keep voters’ eyes on the ball, Malema has broadened the theme of the campaign to include national questions such as land reform – or the lack thereof – and the failure of government policies to create sustainable jobs and lift the masses out of soul-crushing poverty.
These are all national competencies – big-picture issues – about which local government authorities can do precious little.
And when the failures of local government are pointed out – even by his constituents – Malema is quick to dismiss them as the fault of a few rotten apples.
The ANC cannot be held accountable for the failures of individuals, he regularly tells his supporters – or as he has put it: “The ANC has never made a mistake.”
And those impertinent enough to suggest they will stay away from the polls on May 18 – or those engaged in protests over the lack of municipal services – are swiftly branded “spoilt brats” for not appreciating all the ANC has done for them. After all, protesters were burning tyres on roads built for them by the ANC, Malema said this weekend.
Instead of doing some much-needed soul-searching and interrogating of the failures of his party’s policies – or perhaps the failure of the implementation of those policies – the young leader has chosen the easy and politically expedient route. Find a scapegoat. And for Malema, it seems, the goat is white.
He has successfully resurrected an old apartheid-era bogeyman with not so much as a peep from Luthuli House.
Taking a move straight from the National Party playbook, Malema has turned “swart gevaar” into “wit gevaar”. It worked then, so why wouldn’t it work today? And like the Nats, Malema seems oblivious to the damage his polarising comments are doing.
Not since the DA’s infamous “fight back” campaign in the Western Cape in 1999 has an election campaign in South Africa seen such high levels of race hatred. With a constant and insidious drip, drip, dripping, the electorate has been fed a diet of racial innuendo and intolerance. Race is once again firmly in the national consciousness.
Gone is Nelson Mandela’s national project for reconciliation. Gone too is former president Thabo Mbeki’s project for long-term economic growth. That project is taking far too long, Malema has suggested, with some justification.
Those within and outside the ANC brave enough to point out the flaws in Malema’s message are quickly dismissed as counter-revolutionaries or people with “white tendencies”. And so they duck behind the parapet in the hope that others will risk their necks instead.
Throughout Malema’s steady rise in the popularity stakes, Zuma has been all but invisible. He has his own personal political problems, not least the rumours that he has lost Malema’s support.
For the ANC, Malema has now become too big to fail, to borrow a phrase, and will be left to spurt his racial invective as long as this continues to energise the party’s base.
But the Fourth Estate must carry some of the blame, if blame is the word, for Malema’s public standing today. Without the blanket coverage he has enjoyed from day one, Malema’s relentless rise to the top would not have been possible – or certainly not as fast.
But spare a thought for the media. They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
The position of ANC youth leader is not a ceremonial one. It has always been a powerful political platform from which to drive policy changes. It is from this position that Mandela pushed for an armed struggle.
It is also a very potent platform from which to launch succession campaigns, either on behalf of the incumbent or for the sake of a challenger. No ANC leader comes to power without the support of the league. Just ask Mandela – or Mbeki, for that matter. So for the media to ignore what Malema has to say – as some seem to suggest it should – would amount to self-censorship. Nonetheless, the media might reflect on its tone, particularly in some of the early reporting on the man.
At first, there was something of the buffoon in the way he was portrayed and indeed in the way he behaved. Critically, though, commentators failed to account for two important factors: Malema was not suffering from foot-in-mouth with his controversial outbursts – he was well aware of the effects they would have. And secondly, the astute, if crass, political operator had no illusions about the levels of disaffection building at the grass roots of South African society.
The chattering classes dismissed him with equal disdain, pinning their shaken hopes on the rationality of the ANC. Surely, they thought, honourable leaders of the oldest political party in Africa would not allow a young upstart to drag the country down the well-worn path from nationalisation to mass starvation?
Someone, somewhere, would put him in his place. But such notions assumed the party was being led. It wasn’t. There was a leadership void big enough for Malema and his whole entourage to drive their luxury SUVs through – flashing blue lights and all.
Malema’s election to office was marred by naked bums and mock coffins, so people might be forgiven for thinking him a clown at the time. This guy is a joke, the tone of some of the media reporting seemed to suggest. Now the joke’s on us.
Others, however, have less of an excuse.
However principled, the ongoing court action by Afri- Forum is both ill-considered and poorly timed.
It has provided Malema with the perfect opportunity to portray himself as the sole, persecuted defender of the ANC’s Struggle history.
On the campaign trail I have heard repeatedly from people who were swayed to Malema’s side by his court appearances. By the way, that phalanx of gun-toting bodyguards who accompanied him to court had nothing to do with security concerns – it was a show of force and served as a status symbol.
So here we are, just days before what many predict will be a watershed poll, and Malema is firmly in the driving seat of the ANC’s campaign.
Few would have predicted this 18 months or so ago. Make no mistake, Malema’s comments are not without merit.
Seventeen years into our democratic project and the majority of our citizens still live below the breadline.
Despite the enormous achievements of the ANC – few governments can boast having built 5 million homes for their citizens over the same time span – there are serious concerns about poor leadership, widespread corruption and the unashamed pushing and shoving at the state tender trough.
But to blame whites for this state of affairs is not only dis-ingenuous, it prevents the country from having an honest discussion about what is going wrong and how to fix it. It is a tired – and destructive – argument that gets whipped out and dusted off by whichever militant is in charge of the youth league at the time.
Some will call these observations alarmist or sensationalist. But a few, I suspect, will read the same writing on the wall. They will hear the canary chirping the warning of impending disaster.
And unless someone, somewhere, does something to stem the tide of racist rhetoric, we will all pay a heavy price in the end. - Political Bureau