Will Malema be back?

2012-03-03 09:15

News of the expulsion from the ANC of the party’s youth league leader, Julius Malema, spread like wildfire on Wednesday evening.

Yet, curiously, even some of his biggest detractors refused to believe that this could be the end. Many warned on social networking sites that he surely has a few more political lives left.

One flabbergasted tweep asked me, “@eusebius, has (Malema) been expelled permanently?”

Clearly, whether you love him or hate him, Malema has become such a permanent fixture in our daily political drama that, like the news of Mark Twain’s death, reports of the political death of Malema strike some as a gross exaggeration. All this raises a simple, pointed question: will Malema be back?

The answer is simple too. “Not likely, not any time soon.” In order to understand why he has almost completely ruined his chances of a political comeback, it is necessary to take stock of just how juvenile the legal strategy was that Malema and his team used throughout the disciplinary process.

The legal missteps explain why a future political comeback will almost certainly be a flop.

In short, Malema’s disciplinary hearing exposed the extent of the strategic and tactical ineptitude in his approach to politics.

These weaknesses, in turn, cannot be a foundation for political longevity. Let us examine the detail.

In defending his remarks about regime change in Botswana, as well as casting aspersions on the leadership of President Jacob Zuma, in what some regard as a divisive comparison with that of former president Thabo Mbeki, Malema sought to claim that he was merely stating positions adopted by the league and so was not speaking in his personal capacity or as an ordinary member of the ANC.

Fellow political analyst Steven Friedman has previously pointed out – and correctly in my view – that there is room to critique some of the national disciplinary committee’s (NDC) findings that some of these charges really do amount to bringing the party into disrepute and sowing division.

The clearest example of that, probably, is the claim that Malema ought not to have opined on Mbeki’s leadership on the continent and implied that little progress had been made since, thereby embarrassing Zuma.

The findings of the DC process may well have an unhealthily chilling effect and, frankly, setting the bar for reasonable debate in the party – even on a public platform – that low is indicative of just how much organisational overhaul, culturally speaking, is needed to get the ANC to snap out of its top-down approach to debate.

Yet the merits of that finding aside, Malema’s response to the guilty verdict that the national disciplinary committee of appeals (NDCA) confirmed, was rather odd.

He was given a chance by the NDCA to go back to the NDC to argue in mitigation for why the suspension of his membership for five years should be reduced.

That brings us to the past two weeks or so. An examination of his approach to the mitigation hearing is revealing.Malema made a very elementary mistake. Instead of showing remorse, he insisted on his innocence.

Not only does this show that he does not get the meaning of “mitigation”, it also constitutes a rejection of the constitution of the ANC itself. Why? Because an acceptance of the constitution of the ANC would mean respecting the NDC and the NDCA’s findings as binding.

In effect, therefore, Malema’s mitigation claim of innocence carried the self-destructive message, “I am above the ANC’s constitution!”

This is not just legally impotent (because it has nothing to do with mitigation).

It is also politically short-sighted because it alienates him from the very political organisation of which he is a voluntary member.

The core of the mitigation arguments were, at any rate, unconvincing. The claim that charges against Malema were politically motivated had already been dismissed because they had not been proven, so restating them was both pointless and recalcitrant.

Equally, the claim that Malema was being muzzled because of his calls for nationalisation was undermined by the fact that the ANC itself, as was confirmed by its secretary-general Gwede Mantashe recently, will continue to debate the issue.

So Malema’s DC hearing could not have been an attempt to make the debate on nationalisation disappear.

Malema’s final plea – for a political solution – was doubly confusing: why would innocent men, cocky about that innocence, need a last-minute political compromise?

More importantly, the plea for a political compromise is a slap in the face of the NDC because it amounts to a rejection of the process as a disciplinary one.

Each of these mitigation tactics was therefore part of a broader legal strategy that was hopelessly badly designed. What does this tell us about Malema’s political character and, thereby, his chances for a comeback?

All this reveals a character who thought he was bigger than the parent organisation in which he has been trying to grow up for years.

He was cut a lot of slack, but did not have the political maturity or strength of character to recognise when he was on the back foot. All he knew was how to be bombastic, adversarial and populist. Political history only contains a sprinkling of politicians, the world over, who survived with only those character traits.

And even those who endured over time – the Idi Amins of history – are not exactly remembered fondly for positive legacies.

So Malema’s inability to show flexibility is what accounts for his hard-headedness even after a guilty verdict was confirmed.

And that is why a political comeback will be darn difficult – not because the ANC is incapable of giving the worst delinquents a shot at rehabilitation, but because Malema is unable to reinvent himself.

Even his latest mentor, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, has a biography that is a political study in how to reinvent your delinquent self.

Malema, by contrast, has lost control over his own political weaknesses.

And so I am happy to bet my healthy left kidney that a Malema political comeback in our lifetime is less likely than economic freedom for all.

» McKaiser is a political analyst based at the Wits Centre for Ethics.
Follow him on Twitter @eusebius. Follow City Press: @City_Press

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