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Malema: The fall of a crown prince

By Mark Katwire

His nationalisation rhetoric and controversial comments shook potential investors and threatened South Africa’s integrity

As he put the finishing touches to his political science end year exam, Derek Hanekom, the ANC’s National Disciplinary Committee spokesman wrapped up a news conference confirming the immediate suspension of Julius Malema as President of the ANC youth league for bringing the party into disrepute and ill-discipline.

A senior member of the ANC once stated of Julius Malema, “There is no reason why he can’t be president one day”. He also added, “If nothing major goes wrong”.  A lot went wrong.

Julius Malema, 28, rose to prominence nine years ago when he led a chaotic march through the streets of Johannesburg in which unruly pupils- most in school uniform- ransacked the stalls of hawkers and stole from shops. Soon after his election, he lobbied for President Jacob Zuma to head the ANC, and called for the ousting of Thabo Mbeki.

Jacob Zuma, who was facing fraud and corruption charges had not publically put himself up as a possible candidate. And besides, it then looked improbable that Zuma had any future within politics given the perception that he had been tarnished. Of that Malema said, “Let us make it clear now: we are prepared to die for Zuma. Not only that, we are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma.”

Thabo Mbeki was subsequently recalled by the party; a first in the 100 year history of the ANC, and effectively lost the presidency of the ANC, and relinquished the seat of the President of South Africa. The then deputy President Kgalema Mothalente took over as interim President, awaiting Jacob Zuma to officially take on the post.

From his seventh-floor corner office with views over the city and an imposing portrait of Nelson Mandela on the wall facing the youth league president’s desk, Malema sought to establish a national profile through controversial pronouncements and actions. Many did not know what to make of Malema; in some parts of society Malema was seen as the ANC’s in-house court jester and a buffoon, and for others, as the party’s crown prince, who wielded influence and power while others just stood by and watched. He was the one people went to when official structures had failed them or had not delivered the results they wanted.

In early 2009, Malema raised eyebrows when he criticised his own party member and then Minister of Education Naledi Pandor for “having a fake American accent”. He apologised to her personally after being told to by the ANC. Malema caused more waves on a visit to Zimbabwe in April 2010 when he praised President Robert Mugabe while criticising the opposition leader and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai labelling him an “imperialistic ally”. He also called for the Zimbabwe-style seizure of mines and farms in South Africa. In the same month, he swore at BBC journalist Jonah Fisher during a press conference calling him a “bloody agent”. His actions were condemned by Jacob Zuma and the ANC.

The ANC now found itself in the position of having to issue statements, trying to downplay Malema’s utterances, as possibly misconstrued or outright denial of such statements as not being official policy or statements from the ANC. It was beginning to be apparent that Malema was a loose cannon.

Malema’s relationship with Zuma began to sour, with Malema often attacking the President’s relatives for benefiting from shady black empowerment deals. He also intensified his support for the ousting the secretary general of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe to be replaced by his friend Fikile Mbalula.

Seemingly, Malema’s rapid rise from a regional youth leader to an influential rabble- rouser whose nationalisation rhetoric and controversial comments shook potential investors and threatened South Africa’s integrity among its neighbours had to be curtailed.

At the press conference announcing Malema’s suspension for ill-discipline and bringing the party into disrepute, Malema was reminded that he joined the ANC ‘voluntarily’. “No one is forced to join the ANC or compelled to remain in the ANC, if he or she is not happy,” Hanekom said. “In the same spirit, the ANC should not be obliged to retain the active membership of any person…who pays scant regard to the membership oath of the ANC, its policies, organisational structure, value systems and code of conduct,” he said.

Malema’s miscalculated attempt to take on President Jacob Zuma backfired. His trademark beret, struggle rhetoric, businessmen- who funded his lavish lifestyle, his pro-poor posturing while dining with the rich and famous all seem to have come to an abrupt end.

Malema’s currency was dependant on his position as a powerful leader in the ANC’s youth wing. Now stripped of his power, it will be interesting to see how he moves forward.

But truth be told, Malema may have over-estimated his power and influence- and it cost him.

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