The political phenomenon that is South Africa’s Julius Malema

nkandlaYoung South Africans are presently debating the merits of their country’s post-apartheid settlement. Many feel that in a rush to secure a stable political and economy transition the ANC leadership did not bargain hard enough for structural changes in South Africa’s political economy (here’s Mbembe on the subject). No leader encapsulates this sense of post-apartheid disappointment better than Julius Malema, this week’s guest on Lunch With the FT. Here is an excerpt:

Within a year of setting up the Economic Freedom Fighters, Malema’s party had become a force in South African politics. “They used to say, it’s cold outside the ANC, but we have made it very warm,” he grins, vowing to topple the ruling party within a decade. “If Zuma can be a president of this country, anyone can,” he scoffs, referring to a leader enveloped in sexual and political scandal.

When I challenge his assertion that the end of apartheid has changed nothing, he shifts seamlessly into crowd-pleasing rhetoric. “We are voting, but we can’t eat that cross,” he starts out quietly, referring to the right to vote that black South Africans won in 1994. “That cross has not taken our kids to school. That cross has not given our people the better life that was promised,” he says, his voice rising. “That cross has not returned our land. That cross did not return the minerals. So, when you say to me we have ended apartheid, when there is a huge economic apartheid in this country, I don’t know what you mean.”

His own party, which draws inspiration from Marx and Frantz Fanon, a Caribbean-born revolutionary who advocated the violent overthrow of colonialism, promises to rectify the situation. It proposes seizing white-owned land, with minimum compensation, and nationalising mining companies and banks.

Malema deftly combines incendiary revolutionary rhetoric, street politics, and a mastery of the institutional game within the South African Parliament. For example, partially due to unrelenting pressure from the EFF and Malema in Parliament, President Jacob Zuma was recently forced to return state funds that were used to renovate his private home in Nkandla.

Not long ago Malema was a boorish rubble rouser with a dim political future after being expelled from the ANC. Political commentators argued that:

Malema without the ANC is nothing… The tradition and the history of the ANC, he needs that in order to be able to make his point. Without that he’s very much isolated

But his image is slowly being rehabilitated. The ANC’s failures and economic stagnation add fuel to the fire that is EFF’s message of economic nationalism. malemaAppearances at Chatham House, meetings with business leaders at home and abroad, and modest successes in Parliament further add to the emerging image of an insurgent party that knows the rules and can play by them (even if with a view of eventually changing the same rules).

Just today, Malema was in court in a bid to secure a ruling that President Zuma violated the constitution in his initial refusal to refund the Treasury over Nkandla, thereby opening a window for impeachment.

The most potent revolutionaries are those that have the added advantage of knowing how to play the institutional game. Watch this space.

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