Julius Malema is here to stay, unfortunately for Jacob Zuma
Malema’s common touch with the Lonmin miners showed he’s a survivor and an opportunist with no need for the ANC any more
South African rebel Julius Malema was robbed of a platform this week when thousands of Lonmin miners decided to call off their six-week strike, just as he was breathing life back into his political career on the back of their industrial woes.
Over the space of a few weeks, Malema had successfully tapped into the anger aroused by the merciless massacre of 34 miners in mid-August by police officers. He heaped scorn on the poor handling of the crisis by President Jacob Zuma, the man who had only recently expelled him from the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Daily, he roamed the platinum and gold belts in the north-west of the country imploring workers to down tools and join their peers in solidarity. He gave them hope and offered the prospect of a socialist South Africa in the near future, urging them to rise up against the white owners of the mines and claim what he believes is rightfully theirs. And they responded with thunderous applause.
Malema was in his element. Little more than three months after Zuma cut short his political career, there he was, back on the frontline again, rallying the masses and driving the headlines, with hordes of local and international TV cameras tailing him with the same intensity as they always had.
It reminded me of something he once told me in the time I spent with him while researching my book. It was about two years ago and for some reason, which I cannot now recall, he had come within a hair’s breadth of the wrath of the ANC.
“They can’t get me,” he laughed heartily. “I’m the one with the nine lives. They can’t bring me down.”
Malema’s words ring as true today as they did then. Though he spells doom, if not terror or worse, for many South Africans, he is a locomotive force among millions of dispossessed South Africans. And therein lies the secret of his staying power: Malema is a metaphor for modern South Africa, with its fractured social lines and its divided sense of self.
He embodies what Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe refers to as “lumpen radicalism”: “a political tradition of unruliness – and at times resistance – in which fantasies of male power, control and desire have always been deeply entangled with ‘war envy’”. It is the kind of radicalism which is also deeply embedded in millions of South Africans, which is why Malema can relate them with the ease that he does.
In many respects, he has picked up where Winnie Madikizela-Mandela left off many years ago. A revolutionary figure in her day, she was fearless and radical and pushed way too close to the edge. Like her, Malema has taken to fanning the flames in townships across the country, hastily reviving the revolutionary tradition as he taps into the racial and social anger that continues to bubble beneath the surface with his war-like talk.
It is not surprising that he was quick to make his way to the mining belts last month when violence erupted. It was his perfect storm. For many South Africans, though, it was as if they were gaping at an atrocity all over again.
Yet what is often lost in any understanding of Malema’s provocation, is the fact that he operates in a country that has infinite political opportunity for a man of his ilk, underpinned as South Africa is by a sophisticated first-world economy but bogged down by the harsh realities of the third world and ruled by an ANC that has got lost in its transition from liberation movement to ruling political party. It was, after all, a failure on the part of Zuma to take control of the recent mining crisis that allowed Malema make his comeback in the manner that he did.
The return of the miners to work on Thursday may have left Malema without an immediate cause, but it would be wrong to think we have seen the end of him. With the poorest 20% of the population living off 1.4% of all available income, unemployment teetering around the 40% mark, and a gross dereliction of duty on the part of the ANC leadership, Malema’s pickings are as rich as his prospects are healthy. His future is guaranteed. It’s South Africa’s that appears shaky.