Crunch Time for Malema

By Richard Pithouse · 25 Oct 2011

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On Thursday and Friday this week the ANC Youth League will lead marches on the JSE, the Chamber of Mines and the Union Buildings. Julius Malema's disciplinary hearing is likely to be concluded earlier in the week and these protests are planned as a show of force intended to either weaken the resolve of the disciplinary committee or to make it look like a reactionary clique opposed to the interests of the people as a whole.

Malema is power hungry, corrupt, authoritarian and brutish. But he's no fool and he's not, as so often depicted in the media, a child given to tantrums. The tactical astuteness and fortitude with which he has responded to the ANC's attempt to rein him in cannot be denied. It is the media rather than Malema that is looking a bit silly at the moment.

When Jacob Zuma was under attack from within the party he turned to the alliance partners and the ANC branches. Malema has reached, for the moment anyway, some sort of accommodation with some currents in COSATU and he clearly has some support in the ANC. But the Communist Party, some trade unions, and the bulk of the ANC branches, most of which are in KwaZulu-Natal, are behind Zuma.

The Zuma presidency has been a complete failure in terms of the social expectations that were raised in the lead up to Polokwane. But in terms of the reorganisation of patronage and, in some parts of the country, the assertion of a politics of ethnicity, both of which were also part of the Polokwane moment, Zuma has not failed.  

Moreover there is some popular support for the shift that the ANC has made under his leadership towards social conservatism and a more authoritarian society. Zuma may be under pressure but he is far from being entirely isolated within the party or the alliance. And while it’s too early to determine the political consequences of his new resolve with regard to corruption in his cabinet, a willingness to take decisive action may well count in his favour.

In the 2008 election Zuma appropriated some of the language that has emerged from the rebellion of the poor that has raged since the turn of the century, and with gathering intensity since 2004. Zille did the same in the last local government elections. Of course neither Zuma nor Zille are willing to actually embrace this rebellion or the demands and practices, like land occupations, that have emerged outside of or against the service delivery paradigm.

But Malema's recent appropriation of some of the key tropes that have been developed in this rebellion marks a new moment in our polity. Malema is not just asking people to vote for him. He is offering people elite affirmation, from within the ruling party, that their rebellion is just, endorsing strategies like land occupations and encouraging people to resist the evictions that stem from the service delivery paradigm, nested as it is in a conception of society that sees virtue and efficiency in the violent imposition of the logic of the market on social relations.

The Youth League's attempt to mobilise mass support against the ANC's disciplinary process at Shell House at the end of August was a failure in terms of the number of people that turned out. The aggressive behaviour of the small number of protesters did ensure a major media impact but that was largely due to the shock of a faction of the ANC turning on the party so directly. Intensity will not easily be able to substitute for scale again and if the Youth League fails to mobilise at a significant scale this week its whole project will risk crumbling as the distance between its hubris and reality becomes evident.

Of course Malema's attempt to rally support in places like the Tembelihle shack settlement in Lenasia, a community in which there has been significant political ferment during the last ten years, is entirely opportunistic. The Youth League has only turned to places like Tembelihle because it is under pressure and looking for support. 

Around the country, bitter frustration with politicians and others that seek, as the popular phrasing has it, to use the poor and their struggles 'as ladders' is common. Some people will see Malema's opportunism in these terms. But it’s also true that many people have been waiting for their suffering and struggles to be recognised by the upper reaches of the ANC and some people may hope that it will be Malema who will finally redeem the emancipatory promise of the ANC.

Others may make a more clear-sighted tactical decision to join the Youth League's protests hoping to use them to drive their own agenda. If the Youth League is successful in mobilising genuine mass support this week it will put the ANC in a position where it will either have to crush Malema, co-opt him or make a decisive break with the post-apartheid deal. 

If Malema is crushed there is a strong chance that he will not survive politically once cast adrift from the money flowing though the systems of patronage.

The rebellion of the poor carries considerable diversity in terms of modes of organisation, tactics, the nature of demands and so on. That diversity is also evident in the organisations and movements that have emerged out of this rebellion. 

Commentators have often missed this diversity and have tended to extrapolate too widely based on particular experiences. But there are some points that can be made with a degree of general validity. One of those is that popular protest has largely targeted local government and has largely assumed the good faith of senior figures in the ANC. When the good faith of senior ANC leaders has been questioned it has often been assumed that their rivals within the ANC will redeem the promise of democracy.

For this reason Malema will, if he does manage to build real popular support for the marches this week, find it very difficult to sustain that support if he is forced outside of the ANC. It is possible to build movements outside of the ANC but it requires painstaking organisation, much of which is about the slow and careful work of building relations of trust. Sustained organisation also requires the development of communities of meaning and shared identity that can replace the investment that so many people have made in a sense of connection to the ANC as a way to attain a sense of national belonging.

It seems unlikely that the Youth League could make a shift from the politics of patronage, media spin and individual charisma to this sort of organisation. Roaring in to Thembelihile in a cavalcade of luxury cars to stage a quick media spectacle is one thing. Patient years of weaving strong bonds of understanding and solidarity through meetings, protests, prayers, performance and funerals is another thing.

If Malema is co-opted the ANC will continue to flail around gracelessly in its current mess for a while longer. But if Malema is triumphant, its clear enough that his own inclinations are towards an authoritarian populism in which a super-rich nationalist elite, an elite rightly characterised as predatory by Zwelinzima Vavi, secures its position by mobilising an autocratic and patriarchal idea of the nation against white wealth and power.  If this project were successful the outcomes would aim to be closer to ZANU-PF than to any attempt to resolve the crisis of racialised inequality and exclusion through a deepening of democracy and the political empowerment of the oppressed.

What we really need is for trade unions and the left, in and out of the ANC, to get over their elitism and the idea that real politics is a question of getting the right person in the Cabinet or the Presidency, or, in other cases, the plainly ridiculous idea that NGO based civil society automatically represents the people.

The widespread obsession with the fantasy that technocratic interventions can resolve fundamentally political problems needs to be put aside. It needs to be understood that the communities of meaning that carry real political weight in the struggle for a just society are not online, in international conferences or constituted in English but are anchored in places like Thembelihle, Blikkiesdorp and the new land occupations that Abahlali baseMjondolo is currently defending in Pinetown.

The project that progressive social forces need to take on with real commitment is to build genuine solidarity, on the basis of equality and mutual respect, with the progressive currents amidst the rebellion of the poor. If democracy is not used to undo poverty then poverty will be misused to undo democracy.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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25 Oct

Crunch Time for Malema

Richard, a good article , well thought through, well argued. Your concluding statement is very ironic but true for Malema..."If democracy is not used to undo poverty then poverty will be misused to undo democracy."

Now replace the word poverty with "Malema" If democracy is not used to undo this corrupt and opportunistic Malema, them Malema will misuse his power irresponsibly trying to undo democracy. NOTE - trying to undo democracy. This will probably make Zimbabwe look like a Sunday school picnic with the potential of large scale violence, loss of life and destruction.

This will probably take SA decades to recover from, if ever. Who will suffer most - yes the very poor whom Malema hypocritically poses to represent, whilst living the good life in luxury, on the very backs and sweat of the poorest of the poor.

My take on it, by the end of this year Malema will have come , Malema will have gone. His time is over. In the end, factual politics always win, not bankrupt emotional politics with no substance.

Its "funeral time" for Malema in the coming weeks, indeed a blessing and light at the end of the tunnel for the bigger SA. This however does not detract from Zumas failed policies corrupts state officials and non delivery. A wake up call indeed and with 15 million social grant "hand outs" with NOTHING done in return, we can only go one way, that is downwards and fast too.

We need to TEACH and impliment self reliance and attract investment and a belief in SA both locally and abroad. Zumas legacy is one of; Too little too late !!

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Dewdawn Verified user
25 Oct

Crunch Time for Malema

Malema has attempted to squeeze JZ into a tight space for some time now. He believes he is better at political two-stepping than JZ.

He lacks the years of experience that JZ has and a lot of his posturing seemingly comes from what he believes in.

Whilst he will be dealt a nasty blow now it is my believe that JZ will keep him close so that he can be watched for future shenanigans.

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Lee Cahill
26 Oct


I wouldn't count on factual politics always winning the day, because they rarely do ...

Sadly, I wouldn't count on it being 'funeral time' for Malema either. If the ANC were to uphold its own constitution, it would certainly have to suspend him, but I feel a 'political solution' is much more likely in this case.

Also, as Richard says, Malema has very artfully tapped into very real socio-economic and political issues, so I feel support for him is likely to stay strong, no matter what the outcome of the disciplinary hearing might be.

Of course, no-one has a crystal ball and the marches tomorrow and on Friday will be telling. But I suspect Malema is going to be with us for some time yet ...

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27 Oct

So Far the March is a Flop

At just before 9:30 on Thursday morning there are only 800 people on the march. If an organisation like Abahlali Base Mjondolo can get thousands without a cent and no press hype and Malema can only get 800 with all his millions and huge press hype its clear that his claim to represent the poor is a total fiction. Although, I suppose, we will have to wait until tomorrow to be sure that it has flopped.

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27 Oct

Malema's Lame Excuses

So the march is (thus far) a flop and Malema is blaming the NIA. The NIA harass and undermine every single social movement protest - and their harassment always extends to threatening bus companies etc. Malema's excuse carries no weight. He has (thus far) failed to show any real mass support.

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28 Oct


I fail to see the relevence of this march other than trying to show Luthuli House the support JM has.

The ONLY gains we as a nation can make towards economic freedom is by urgently acquiring skills and gaining meaningful education. The timing of the march - when matriculants are sitting down to write their finals - indicates the mentality of the ANCYL towards education. In their minds, education is not a necessity in obtaining economic freedom.

Even if people are given land to farm - they still need skills and knowledge in order to develop a sustainable business.

Why, even if we gave every unemployed R10 million to do what they pleased, how many would still have any money left after 5 years. How many people who won a lottery still has money left after a few years?- a tiny percentage. You still need enducation to know how to manage what you have.

There is no getting away from the fact education is key. So why are we still dragging our feet on this matter?? Simply put - its only politics.
We know what needs to be done. Let's do it. Instead of tenders lets rather implement BBEE policies in education. The best schools, with the best resources, libraries etc. accompanied by meaningful social development programs. Vigourously promote learning and skills development.
There are only a limited amount of unskilled jobs one can create in any economy.

But who is listening anyway. No doubt, we never learn from other developing countries. We inevitably make the same mistakes over and over. We do the same things, yet expect different results. How intellligent is that?

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28 Oct


The 'March for Economic Freedom" is simply a political exercise by Malema as a show of his 'support'.

Yes, Malema has chosen very important issues - issues that everyone is well aware of - as a means to an end.

We can blame who we want, the reality is that government has failed the people. We lost R26.4 billion in corrupt deals, mismanagement etc. in this financial year. Money taxpayers will have to 'top up' in the next financial year.

Our education system is a joke. There is very little learning taking place in our township schools as a result of social issues(hunger, crime, vandalism of schools, gangsterism, drugs etc), poor resources, poor teaching, poor management, little interest from the education department who acknowledge the problems, sympathise with schools but do very little to implement change.

Above all, the mentality towards learning in poor communities leaves much to be desired. Very few learners understand the need for education. Schools are simply a place to go socialise, buy drugs, have sex and create chaos.

The ANCYL, who represent the youth, has made very little mention of these important issues, nor looked at ways to change this.

Everything that they do is to further their own personal agendas - the acqusition of personal wealth. That is why in reality, we are regressing instead of progressing.

I mean, how can one possibly organise a youth march when the youth are sitting down to write their final matric exams??

Poor cognitive skills, low intelligence and high expectations do not mix. Our so-called 'leaders' should be ashamed. Bet they never even thought about it.

Lets unite, politics aside, to address our urgent social issues - if this is even possible, I do not know.

We must stop procrastinating and get on with the job.

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2 Nov

Steven Friedman's Take on the March

Steven Friedman, as usual, has the most sober assessment of the march after the fact:

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