South Africa’s future: the Malema factor

The rise of the controversial populist Julius Malema is shaking the ruling African National Congress, says Stephen Ellis.

The appearance of Julius Malema, president of the African National Congress’s Youth League, before a party disciplinary tribunal is only one of the problems besetting the ANC.  In fact, so many are these problems that they could tear the ANC apart.   

Underlying them all is the question of whom the ANC will choose to be its candidate for South Africa’s next presidential election, in 2014. The ANC is sure to win a majority in any national election - as long, that is, as its warring factions remain in the same big tent. So the really crucial question is the identity of the candidate the party adopts. This it will do at its next national conference, scheduled to take place at Mangaung, better known as Bloemfontein, in 2012. To add to the piquancy, next year is also the centenary of the ANC’s foundation.

The incumbent president both of the ANC and of South Africa is Jacob Zuma. He was elected president of the ANC in a massively bad-tempered ANC national conference held in Polokwane in 2007, and two years later he duly became head of state. Now, there is substantial internal opposition to Zuma. A group of plotters within the ruling party - including current ministers, senior party officials and high civil servants - would like to select his current deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, in his place. 

Motlanthe is by nature a diplomat rather than a plotter. He served as a caretaker president of South Africa in 2008-09 following Thabo Mbeki’s resignation and could play a similar role again, by serving just one five-year term from 2014 onwards while younger politicians scheme for the longer-term succession.   

It is wise, generally speaking, not to put much faith in conspiracy theories. But ANC politics consists of little but conspiracies.

This is where Julius Malema comes in. He emerged as a national figure in 2007, when party factions were manoeuvring to depose the then state president, Thabo Mbeki. So unpopular had Mbeki become that ANC activists were prepared to choose almost anyone in his place. The person who took the prize was Jacob Zuma. That is how he became president of South Africa. If he hadn’t won this contest he would almost certainly have ended up in prison on charges of corruption. That is how far South Africa has sunk.   

Julius Malema was part of the coalition that put Zuma in power. Later, he turned against Zuma and joined the ranks of the internal opposition. In retaliation, Zuma is now scheming to have Malema overthrown as president of the Youth League.   

But Malema is no mere apparatchik. He is a genuine demagogue. Although he is barely educated, he has a shrewd political brain and knows how to appeal to South Africa’s millions of unemployed and excluded youth, particularly young men. They came out in their hundreds to riot on his behalf during a recent court appearance. 

Another of Malema’s talents, if that is the right word, is his ability to frighten whites. He preaches a form of racism that causes any white South African instinctively to flinch. He also advocates policies that any thinking person, black or white, knows will lead to ruin along the lines of South Africa’s northern neighbour, Zimbabwe.   

The low road

Malema’s rise raises bigger questions about South Africa’s celebrated transition from apartheid. In 1994 the ANC, supported overwhelmingly by the country’s black majority population, took control of the state after the country’s first ever national election. The ANC has dominated politics ever since. It promised to emancipate its black constituents in economic terms as well as in the political field, but that has hardly been achieved.

Seventeen years later, South Africa has a small number of black plutocrats, almost all of whom have made their money through political connections, sometimes mixed with organised crime, rather than through classic entrepreneurship. It has a substantial black middle class of civil servants and middle managers, many of them heavily indebted with mortgages and car loans. Meanwhile, 14 million South Africans, most of them black, stay alive only thanks to state pensions and other welfare handouts. Unemployment is around 40%. This is where Julius Malema has a following.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. Jacob Zuma is now going full speed to rally his supporters so that he can win the ANC’s next pitched battle in Mangaung in 2012. A worrying sign is that his support is concentrated in KwaZulu Natal, just one of South Africa’s nine provinces, but home to the Zulu people. Jacob Zuma is the most powerful Zulu politician since the last independent kings of Zululand in the 19th century. He is the heir to a powerful tradition of Zulu nationhood. Zuma is no racist. He is a charming man who has no problem working with whites or anyone else, but an appeal to his Zulu base brings with it a certain logic.  

Malema? He could be thrown out of the ANC, in which case it will be interesting to see what he does next. On the face of it, he would have nowhere to go. But he may not be expelled, in which case he may go from strength to strength - as long as he can negotiate the treacherous waters of ANC politics.

About the author

Stephen Ellis is Desmond Tutu professor in the social sciences at the Free University Amsterdam, and a senior researcher at the African Studies Centre, University of Leiden. He is the author of Season of Rains: Africa in the World (C Hurst, 2011)

His previous books include [with Solofo Randrianja] Madagascar: A Short History (C Hurst, 2009) and [with Gerrie ter Haar] Worlds of Power: Religious Thought and Political Practice in Africa (C Hurst, 2004). His articles include "West Africa's International Drug Trade" (African Affairs, 108/431, 2009)

Read On

African Studies Centre, University of Leiden

Stephen Ellis, Season of Rains: Africa in the World (C Hurst, 2011)

South African History Online

Alec Russell, "Zuma needs to boot out his youth leader" (Financial Times, 2 October 2011)

South Africa's government

African National Congress

Stephen Ellis & Tsepho Sechaba, Comrades Against Apartheid: The ANC and the South African Communist Party in Exile (Indiana University Press, 1992)

More On

Stephen Ellis is Desmond Tutu professor in the social sciences at the Free University Amsterdam, and a senior researcher at the African Studies Centre, University of Leiden. He is the author of Season of Rains: Africa in the World (C Hurst, 2011)

Also by Stephen Ellis in openDemocracy:

"Darfur: countdown to catastrophe" (9 June 2004)

"Madagascar: roots of turmoil" (23 March 2009)

"The Sahara's new cargo: drugs and radicalism" (14 April 2010)

"Africa: progress and risk" (24 May 2011)

"Mandela, communism, and South Africa" (25 July 2011)

His previous books include [with Solofo Randrianja] Madagascar: A Short History (C Hurst, 2009) and [with Gerrie ter Haar] Worlds of Power: Religious Thought and Political Practice in Africa (C Hurst, 2004). His articles include "West Africa's International Drug Trade" (African Affairs, 108/431, 2009)