By James N.Kariuki*
A strange sense of loss lingers in reading South African newspapers and not spotting the name of Julius Malema mentioned at least once. It confirms the nagging suspicion that I once had, that the South African public would miss good ol’ Juju (Malema’s nickname) if he ever disappeared from the country’s public scene. Malema is no longer in South Africa’s public view; he vanished from the political screen a year ago.
The outside world may not know much of who Julius Malema is. He is not an old official or a sporting national hero.. Yet at one stage, Malema’s name was better known than that of South Africa’s president. So, who is this Malema?
Julius Malema is a political creation of the 2007 fall of South Africa’s former President Thabo Mbeki from power. As the newly-elect leader of the ANC Youth League, Malema became instrumental in Mbeki’s political ouster as the mouthpiece of the rising political star, Jacob Zuma. Malema was fully convinced of the correctness of Zuma’s takeover. Indeed he publicly declared that the youth of South Africa was prepared to die and kill for Zuma. That statement was heard around the world.
For nearly six years, Malema entertained, confounded, offended, puzzled and intrigued his national audience. Some found him offensive and threatening. To them, he was a reckless populist, an undisciplined and opportunistic demagogue.
To others, the same Malema was as a charming and inspirational leader, a clever and perceptive politician with a penetrating mind. He grasped what ordinary South Africans did not and told it ‘like it was’ with a cocky attitude of ‘I say what I like.’ Supporters would have walked to the end of the world with Julius, their charismatic hero.
Still others were gripped by Malema’s capability to jolt. He did not have the fire and inspiring ability of a Malcolm X or the humility and disarming intellect of Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere. But with Malema around, there never was a dull moment. He was indeed controversial and always told the truth as he saw it. For that, he was a newsmaker. For his frankness, he often got into trouble and ultimately came to grief.
In February 2012, Julius Malema was finally expelled from the ANC on the grounds of sawing division in the party. By that act alone, he was deprived of a national platform and international visibility. All that is heard of him now is his legal woes with the law.
A critical question arises. Malema is gone, thrown into political wilderness. In banishing him, was there a case of throwing out the baby with the dirty water? When all is said and done, did Malema have a valid message for SA? What is his lasting legacy to SA, a legacy that that transcend his rhetoric and shifting images?
There is little doubt that Malema did fuel an ideological split in the ANC. But he did not cause that divide; he merely unveiled and magnified it for all to see. The fissure between ANC conservatives and the radicals was there long before Malema, and it may remain there long after him. The ANC will ultimately have to come to grips with the fact of this divide.
Post-apartheid black SA remains horrifically poor in absolute and relative terms. Since 2009, the country has indeed overtaken Brazil as the most skewed society in the world. How to close the income inequality gap, rectify this politically explosive lop-sidedness, is where irreconcilable differences between Malema and his party bosses originated.
The left, championed by Malema for half a decade, is committed to the notion that an ANC government is duty-bound to nationalize the means of production such as mines and white-owned lands. By doing so, that government will capture the commanding heights of the economy and position itself where it can redistribute the national wealth more equitably. In that manner, it will be in a position to blunt the offensive and politically dangerous economic inequality of wealth between the white haves and the black have-nots.
The left thus rejects the conventional official wisdom that the first order of the day is for the government to sustain national economic growth to address such threats as unemployment and political instability. To the left, such superficial stay-the-course approach provides space for foreign investments which, ultimately, perpetuate poverty and encourage offensive arrogance of foreigners. Some critics have suggested that the August 16, 2012 Marikana Massacre is testimony to this perception.
In contemporary SA, the idea of land confiscation and nationalization of mines is popular and explosive. It appeals because it is widely believed to be an intrinsically valid method to address the issue of general and relative poverty. There exists a widespread view that, after what South Africans went through to dismantle apartheid, everybody should be able to come to the party. Secondly, it contains a dose of anti-white sentiments. Negative racial undercurrent remains a potent component of the country’s politics.
Thirdly COSATU, SA’s largest federation of unions, laments that the apartheid economy of exploitation remains intact. COSATU is the powerful partner in the ANC’s government of tripartite alliance. Will a time come when this vocal mega-labor federation starts to agitate for dismantling of the country’s economy?
Finally, aversion to excessive white wealth in an endless sea of poverty has slowly but surely seeped into the moderate circles. For one, Professor Ali Mazrui regrets that abolishment of apartheid excluded economic concessions to Blacks. In his own words, in 1994 the white man said to the Blacks, “You take the crown; we will keep the jewels.’ In that manner economic inequality was officially entrenched.
To mitigate the agony of economic ‘dream-deferred’, Malema’s political dream was to snatch back some of the ‘gold’ for himself and his black fellows. In this context, he can be forgiven for harboring drastic views; he is an angry young man in a hurry. But the complaint of economic ‘justice-delayed’ is slowly being echoed by less radical anti-apartheid champions.
In August 2011, Archbishop Desmond Tutu Emeritus, by no means a man of Malema’s ideological persuasion, raised eyebrows by calling for imposition of a tax on white wealth to speed up South Africa’s economic transformation.At the grassroots level, Malema’s so-called revolutionary agenda resonates as ‘conventional.’ Indeed, it has widespread appeal, perhaps strong enough to destabilize the country. Hence, the concern that SA’s political order is increasingly becoming susceptible to an Obama-type politician. Could a Malema reappear in a different guise?
**James N. Kariuki is a Professor of International Relations and an independent Consultant based in South Africa. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author.