Beyond Malema

2011-09-02 00:00

WE have by now all seen and heard the shouting, screaming and general pandemonium that ensued outside Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters, on Tuesday. There is plenty to say and even more to consider over the next few days. The message that violence and protests can send us isn’t new. But the fact that this occurred during what is essentially an intra-party struggle is new. And that message is important.

About a month ago, at a debate on mine nationalisation, Dr Frans Cronjé from the SA Institute of Race Relations gave what has since become his stump speech. It’s a detailed but succinct presentation on the population bulge, and the fact that most youth are unemployed.

In fact, most people aged between 25 and 34 will never work in their lives. He goes on to point out there has been a twin failure, that both economics and politics have failed these people. While Julius Malema’s supporters were throwing stones and rocks at police and journalists on Tuesday, this is what went through my mind. Along with the urgent need for self-preservation, of course.

There are dozens of reasons for these failures. The fact is, it would be hard to get an economy as racially divided as South Africa was (or still is) to change over the short period of less than 20 years. At the same time, there was never a real national effort to repeat the effort similar to some Asian countries. There is a reason for that. In those countries that have made huge economic strides quickly, say West Germany or Japan, there was consensus. Here, the ruling party itself can’t even agree on a job-creation policy.

In South Africa, every single detail is contested. The slightest comment, nudge or hint of a policy shift in any direction brings a huge reaction. It’s about free speech, the reaction to apartheid, and then to Thabo Mbeki. But you have to wonder if it’s really worth it to keep our political culture in this economic cul-de-sac, when the real result is unemployment.

At the same time, of course, we don’t want a return to apartheid, or even some aspects of Mbeki’s rule, come to think of it. But the problem is that parts of those are appealing.

Look at the way Malema’s supporters behave, and the way he treats them. They are “soldiers”, “revolutionaries”. He is all Che Guevara, beret-ed and with a T-shirt of a former soldier, Chris Hani. His more popular songs are marching tunes, calls to war, to violence. To some, this might evoke memories of Adolf Hitler’s private army of young men. The difference, perhaps, is that most of those young men, and certainly their leaders, had fought in a war and had had military training in World War 1. Here, despite our violent past, it wasn’t quite like that, and Malema, despite his protestations, certainly doesn’t have that kind of background.

And, of course, unlike Japan and West Germany, we are not homogenous, and our differences are often wholly apparent by the way we look. Which doesn’t help.

Then we have the political failure of an attempt to have one-party rule. The ANC, like any other political party in a democracy, would like all the votes all the time. This means that arguments and debates are held within structures and not out in the open. When those structures fail, as they will inevitably, people have no other way to achieve their aims, but violence. This is really what we saw on Tuesday. People frustrated with the way their leader, hero, general was being treated, and thus doing the only thing they could. Lashing out.

Right, now to the bigger issue: how to fix it. In a way, it could fix itself. Say Malema gets kicked out, and despite all predictions to the contrary, is able to harness these angry young people into some kind of movement. That would have some serious impact on our politics. Firstly, the opposition would no longer be the DA, but a militant leftward movement. That would probably push economic policy to the left, and possibly social policy to the right. As capitalists, we wouldn’t like that much.

But what we would be very pleased about is that it could keep people who currently protest, voting. They would have a stake in the electoral system. This would keep them involved in electoral politics, voting rather than marching. Hopefully. It would also provide opposition (sorry Helen). That would be hugely welcome as there would be a real contest for votes, rather than the fights over identities between tea ladies and right-wing demagogues that we are currently saddled with.

The other possibility is that the ANC suffers long-term damage to its unity through all of the mess it managed to amass. In other words, some kind of future split is perhaps brought forward.

Unfortunately, what is still quite likely, is that whatever happens over the next few days, the ANC is likely to become more and more unstable, which helps no one. It means no direction, no resolution on difficult issues, and simple stagnation. It means more acceptance of mediocrity or worse, and bumbling, because everyone wants to rock the boat, but just a little, never enough to capsize it.

Of course, that also depends on leadership. It is possible, although perhaps unlikely, that President Jacob Zuma and co, if they beat Malema, could suddenly get moving. He could, within the space literally of a busy month, have a reshuffle, tell Cosatu to back down on jobs and youth wage subsidies, and get everything moving.

It’s not the most likely scenario perhaps, but one that would give all of us hope. It would be the midway point between the Mbeki organisation, and the completely free, but dysfunctional society we have now.


• Stephen Grootes is a reporter for Eyewitness News.

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