x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

South Africa's rising star faces political ruin

What does the expected expulsion of the young firebrand Julius Malema, an icon of restless township youths and a staple of tabloid newspapers, say about the state of the nation?

An Inconvenient Youth / Fiona Forde / Picador
An Inconvenient Youth / Fiona Forde / Picador

Only a few months ago, it seemed South Africa might follow in the footprints of the Arab Spring. Though an outwardly stable democracy (Libya, too, of course, was "outwardly stable"), the country had long shared many of North Africa's pre-revolutionary ills: a resource curse, high youth unemployment, widespread inequality and mass frustration at a government full of complacent former revolutionaries willing to enrich themselves, but not deliver meaningful social change beyond the ruling classes. It even had a man prepared to lead the masses into battle.

Back in 2008, scarcely anyone had heard of the combative 27-year-old South African high school dropout elected to head the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party's Youth League. But by last autumn, Julius Malema was the country's most talked about politician, feared and admired for his racially charged calls to nationalise mines and expropriate white-owned farms. He had first gained international notoriety in 2010 for throwing the BBC journalist Johan Fisher out of an ANC press conference at which the Youth League president denounced Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai for using offices in Sandton, the poshest suburb of Johannesburg. When Fisher brought up Malema's own residence in Sandton, Malema called him a "b******" on live TV, and shouted: "This is a revolutionary house ... Here you behave or else you jump".

Malema's subsequent praise for Robert Mugabe and unrepentant singing of Shoot the Boer, a struggle song critics say incites violence against white farmers, had made "Juju" an icon of restless township youths, a staple of tabloid newspapers and the bête noir of South Africa's increasingly nervous whites. His loud outfits and trademark black beret have even inspired a line of Malema-themed clothing, produced by sympathetic businessman Obakeng Ramabodu.

In September last year, when Forbes magazine named Malema one of Africa's 10 most powerful young men, his eyes were set not just on bringing down his former mentor President Jacob Zuma, but the country's entire social order borne out of its negotiated transition from apartheid in the 1990s.

Though Nelson Mandela had won the country's first free election in 1994, the ANC, as part of its deal with the National Party to end minority rule, agreed to retain a market economy and scrap previous demands for mass nationalisation and radical wealth redistribution.

As a result, Mandela's historic compromise with the NP's Frederick DeKlerk avoided bloodshed, delivered democracy, and won the two men the Nobel Peace Prize, but left many of apartheid's fundamental iniquities intact. Today, as white South Africans continue to earn, on average, nearly eight times more than their black countrymen (according to a recent study by the South African Institute of Race Relations), it is this sense of unfinished business that motivates Malema. At last week's ANC centenary celebrations, he told supporters: "One hundred years of the ANC must mean a roof over your head, bread on the table ... that's why the struggle continues."

But as a recently handed down five-year suspension from the ANC for insubordination threatens to send Malema back into obscurity, barring a last-minute appeal, he might have come full circle.

On November 10, 2011, the ANC's national disciplinary committee found Malema guilty of provoking divisions within the party and bringing the party into disrepute. The misdemeanours cited include Malema's call to invade Botswana last year, which led to an embarrassing diplomatic conflict with South Africa's northern neighbour, and his disruption of an executive level meeting. Analysts agree, however, that the real reason Malema was removed was for his increasingly vocal attacks on the president, a man to whom he had previously pledged his loyalty with the words "we are prepared to die for Zuma, [and] take up arms and kill for Zuma", but whom he is now determined to prevent from winning a second term in office.

If his appeal against these charges, scheduled to take place on January 23, turns out to be unsuccessful, as most observers believe, he will be banished from national politics for five years, an exile from which even such an accomplished political survivor may never recover.

How did this barely literate township Icarus manage, in such a short time, to scale the heights of South African politics, only to plunge, just as suddenly, into apparent oblivion? What were the forces that gave rise to prominence of this revolutionary without a revolution who promises to re-enact the days of the struggle, and what does Malema's dizzying rise say about the state of contemporary South Africa?

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In An Inconvenient Youth, the first and so far only biography of the man, the South Africa-based Irish journalist Fiona Forde answers some, but not all, of these questions. Based on a series of interviews and personal encounters between Forde and Malema between 2008 and 2011, her book provides a timely and illuminating, if limited and unevenly written, account of his remarkable journey.

Sadly, it's an account let down by Forde's meandering style and clunky, cliché-ridden prose. Banal, nondescript phrasing abounds, forcing characters to repeatedly "sing praises" and "struggle to put food on the table". But although An Inconvenient Youth is not the authoritative account or even the taut political thriller it could so easily have been, given Malema's compelling story and Forde's remarkable access, the book still manages to convey many of the struggles and contradictions of South Africa's post-liberation politics.

Born into apartheid's twilight years, Malema was, as legend has it, taught how to use a gun before he could read by an ANC cadre grooming a new generation of fighters ahead of the anticipated bloodbath that would never arrive. Later, he was taken under the wing of several powerful mentors and rose through the ANC ranks, aided by his fierce loyalty and his ability to speak his mind and deal with his adversaries.

Forde first encounters Malema a year before he "appeared out of nowhere" around the middle of 2008, "ploughing the socio-political landscape like an unguided missile". He was a provincial secretary of the ANC Youth League in the Limpopo province and she was writing a story about local elections. Two years later, when he became president of the youth organisation, Forde was assigned by her newspaper to shadow him and the resulting material formed the basis for her book.

In person, Forde found the aspiring strongman "sensitive, witty, humorous and thoughtful". His political hatreds, she believes, stem from a personal inferiority complex nurtured by the memory of life under white supremacy in a still fractured society: "The likes of [Malema] should come as no surprise in a society that is not only still divided along racial lines, but teetering on a lethal mix of unfulfilled promises from the transition, gross inequality in socio-economic terms, and a weak ANC that rules on a majority vote," she tell us.

Forde draws a similarity between Malema's politics and the way an earlier generation of South African youth leaders had seized control of the ANC in the 1940s. At the time, the organisation was led by mild, liberal, US-educated black intellectuals who eschewed radical politics. In the face of increasingly harsh racial laws, the ANC was becoming seen, in Mandela's words, as "the preserve of a tired, unmilitant privileged African elite more concerned with protecting its own rights than those of the masses".

That's when Mandela and his friends Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu captured the party, steering it in a radical direction and into history.

While it is an interesting parallel, it tells us little beyond the fact that the ANC has degenerated into a complacent and self-serving establishment edifice. Most importantly, as Forde admits, Juju is no Mandela. The old guard, she writes, were "fighting for basic human dignity", not "advancing their own economic interests", while "today, however, each step is carefully measured in terms of the financial interests ... to be gleaned from resource-rich South Africa, which is why Malema appears to be fighting so hard for control of the ANC".

Mixing business and politics has become somewhat of a trademark for the modestly paid Malema, infamous for his enormous Breitling watch and houses in well-heeled suburbs - the largesse, he claims, of unnamed businesspeople willing to give him such trappings out of the goodness of their hearts.

As Forde convincingly shows, he appears deeply enmeshed in a corrupt system of patronage involving kickbacks from opaque public tenders and shady land deals in his native province of Limpopo. For example, at least one of the companies to which Malema has ties, an engineering firm called SGL, has benefited from several tenders and then made donations to the Youth League, although Malema denies receiving kickbacks. Another company in which he appears to have held shares, Blue Nightingale Trading, is said to have received some $30,000 (Dh110,000) from a waste management firm that won a government tender in his home province. However, these alleged indiscretions seem to all be forgiven, even applauded, by his admirers.

What's his trick? Forde cites a number of reasons to explain Malema's remarkable popularity with average South Africans. In one of the world's most unequal societies, his demands for economic and social justice carry a potent resonance, particularly among the township youths, half of whom are estimated to be unemployed.

His almost touching naivete is another trait that appeals. At a time when most of the government leadership has long cashed out and cynically abandoned the transformation agenda, here is a man who still seems to believe in something - in the party's redemption, in the relevance of politics.

And for all his bling and the media scrutiny of his dealings, Malema's relatively quaint financial improprieties - including a shady tender to provide uniforms to a local school, a questionably procured $100,000 house and an expensive watch - serve only to emphasise the sheer scale of corrupt accumulation indulged in by the ANC's senior echelon, the same guardians of party discipline who are now out to get him. In what the South African anti-corruption whistle-blower Andrew Feinstein has called the loss of the ANC's moral compass, so many of the party's leading members have been dogged by allegations of massive corruption that a new word has even been coined to describe politicians who use their influence to get rich from opaque business contracts: tenderpreneurs.

Jacob Zuma and his former defence minister Joe Modise have been accused of presiding over a multibillion defence contract that European companies are alleged to have paid more than $300 million in bribes to secure. The police chief, Bheki Cele, has been suspended on suspicion of mishandling around $200m of funds, while his predecessor Jackei Selebi is currently serving 15 years in jail for accepting nearly $200,000 from a convicted mobster. Even the supposedly incorruptible struggle hero Mac Maharaj is now under a journalistic investigation by the Mail & Guardian newspaper for alleged improprieties in awarding key road building contracts when he was transport minister in the late 1990s.

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A leader must also be a good speaker, and for someone who struggled to eke out a C grade in high school English, Malema possesses an uncanny knack for the power of the language. The ridicule he attracts (mainly from whites) for occasional grammatical errors obscures his oratorical prowess and his ability to deliver stinging one-liners. He once labelled a wayward ally "a contraception to transformation" and bitingly refers to Helen Zille, a distinguished former anti-apartheid journalist and current leader of the opposition, simply as "Madam", the bitter term used by the black help for the white lady of the house.

Malema's sharp tongue painfully showcases his biographer's anaemic writing, but what Forde lacks in penmanship or even editorial discipline she makes up in generous use of well-found quotes. Apart from Malema, she interviewed many of the country's leading political veterans and commentators, including some, like lifelong ANC cadre Joe Matthews, who have since died, making An Inconvenient Youth a historical document about the ways in which the ANC has both changed, and stayed the same, over the years.

For example, Matthews tells Forde that though the ANC of the past was much more idealistic than its contemporary incarnation, it has always been an organisation run for and by the elite. In the early days, that circumstance manifested itself in the education and values of the founding members, and today, in the political and financial wealth of its current leaders. "The ANC formed in 1912," writes Forde, "was in many respects as far removed from its own society as the ANC of today is fast becoming."

Yet the author's trump card - the unparalleled access she had to Malema over several months between 2008 and 2011 - somehow seems strangely underwhelming. She succeeds in getting Malema to share his fashion tips ("'if you wear brown leather shoes,' he tells [Forde] as he points to his soft, brown leather Yves Saint Laurent slip-ons, 'you must wear a brown leather belt'"), but despite some great material, it often feels like Forde has tried to spirit a book from outtakes that failed to make it into her previously published work. She also spends too little time speaking to his ordinary followers, relying instead on the voices of heavyweight commentators such as Moletsi Mbeki, brother of the former president. The resulting narrative deprives Forde's account of the true sense of Malema's raw charisma.

And here's what his magnetism feels like first-hand. In the summer of 2011, the newly, and unanimously, re-elected Malema was slated to visit the campus of Durban's University of KwaZulu Natal, where I work, following a nearby rally on the eve of South Africa's municipal vote. The overwhelmingly black university was consumed with a vague euphoria even though rumours of his arrival later proved to be unfounded. The mezzanine of the main hall quickly flooded with hundreds of chanting students, disproportionally composed of excited young women. Despite the fact that Malema failed to show, a revved-up, highly charged atmosphere hung around campus for the rest of the day. Malema seems to embody Black South Africa's repressed political subconscious.

"He is brave enough to say the things we are all thinking," one student told me as we waited in vain. Indeed, as columnist Max du Preez, author of The World According to Malema, a collection of quotes and essays, says to Forde, "People really desperately want to show a finger to all the white symbols and all that comes with them. And Malema does it on their behalf".

This feeling is impossible to understate. Looking at South Africa, formally free but still dominated by European language, customs, commerce, food, architecture, street names and dress, the real question is not how Malema came about, but why he has taken so long to arrive.

Uncannily echoing George Orwell's Animal Farm, the country's new black regime has gladly welcomed the old white masters - literally the farmers, or boers in Afrikaans - back to help them manage the spoils. Today, the black political elite and the white economic, cultural and technical upper classes coexist in a luxurious symbiosis, but the clothes the new nobility wears, the manners, the locales, are largely appropriated from the old South Africa. This is what Malema has called the hated "white tendency", and he is both its product and antagonist, just like the Youth League he leads is both the ANC's understudy and its sole opposition. Forde also astutely identifies the penumbra of nostalgia that hangs over Malema. Despite his relative youth, he seems to be a man from another era, consumed by both an inferiority complex towards and a nagging disappointment in his illustrious ANC forebears. "Few comrades," writes Forde, "recall the past as often as he does, or weave the events of history into the present." He wants to re-enact the struggle against apartheid the way it was "supposed" to have happened, with a righteous bang, instead of the negotiated whimper of 1994.

"There's a feeling of castration that comes from the idea that we couldn't terminate this war with a bullet and put the whites down by stamping our boots on their throats, as was the case in Zimbabwe," according to the commentator Achille Mbembe, whom Forde quotes when describing Malema's "war envy". That envy is not entirely the product of the country's social discontent or sense of unfinished business. South Africa's youth did not simply miss out on the promises of freedom made in 1994. They also missed out on the glory of the struggle. "I wasn't around during the negotiations, but I'm here now," he tells Forde. "We are leading now. We are running the country."

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"Take the picks and hammers! Undermine the foundation of venerable towns!," declared Marinetti in The Futurist Manifesto, and in some ways, the frustrations of South Africa's youth under the current government resembles the pent-up feelings that gripped the youth of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Fed up of living in the shadow of the original revolutionaries, young South Africans hunger to fight a battle of their own, with their own heroes and martyrs. Other, sociologically deeper motivations like inequality, injustice, oppression, important as they are, remain necessary but insufficient conditions for revolution. For two decades, the ANC's system of welfare clientalism (the country has one of the largest grant structures in the world, handing out social welfare cheques to nearly one in three citizens) has kept a lid on the passions of South Africa's masses of unemployed and unemployable young people. But there is a limit to how long such a fragile social contract can last.

For the time being, South Africa's reckoning has been postponed. If Malema loses his appeal against suspension and makes good on his offhand idea to become a farmer in Zimbabwe (following news of his expulsion last November, he said he was "politically finished" and would take up cattle breeding), the bomb may be temporarily defused. But even so, it will only be a matter of time until his banner of violent social transformation is raised again. "Malema is not alone," writes Forde. "There are countless Malemas out there, harbouring hurts, hopes and grand ambitions". And though their rhetoric is nominally directed against South Africa's whites, the real target has become the ANC itself.

Vadim Nikitin is a freelance journalist. He blogs for the Mail and Guardian's Thought Leader in South Africa.