Looking back ten years to the beginning of 2013, it’s hard to believe how much has changed in the space of one short decade. Back then, who would have imagined a future that promised anything but doom and disaster? After nearly 20 years of democracy, the country was a mess.
Conditions in 2013
South Africa was mired in unemployment, poverty and inequality. The jobless rate stood at close to 40 percent, 30 million people were living on less than R10 a day, while the top 50% lived on 92% of the national income.
The great achievement of our first president, Nelson Mandela, was a degree of reconciliation between black and white, the former victims and oppressors. But apart from that, he achieved little in the way of material improvements for the impoverished masses. Most policy decisions were left to the likes of Thabo Mbeki, Trevor Manuel and Alec Erwin. When Mbeki took over as president in 1999 he continued along the path of appeasing financial institutions, business leaders and proponents of the neoliberal economic model. Under his leadership whites in general were able to maintain their privileges, and a small black middle class began to emerge. But for the vast majority of citizens living conditions were little different to those that prevailed under apartheid.
When Jacob Zuma became President in 2009, after having ousted Mbeki at the Polokwane Conference, it was thought that the ANC would adopt a more ‘pro poor’ stance. This did not happen, and by the time of the next NEC Conference at Magaung at the end of 2012, spontaneous outbreaks of civil unrest were taking place throughout the country on a daily basis. In less than four years under Zuma’s leadership – or lack of it – conditions in South Africa had deteriorated alarmingly.
Little wonder, then, that ANC delegates at the Mangaung Conference decided it was time for another change. Jacob Zuma suffered a resounding defeat in the leadership contest, and was replaced by Kgalema Motlanthe.
Admittedly, Motlanthe was more intelligent than his predecessor, and probably less corrupt. And he didn’t have umpteen wives and mistresses and twenty-odd children. Nor was he an embarrassment to his party and the country, and he was capable of acting like a modern statesman, and not a 19th century tribal chief. However, what he did have in common with Zuma was a total lack of ‘Madiba magic.’ He had no idea how he was going to lead us into a better future.
So, at the beginning of 2013 it seemed as if nothing had really changed, despite there being a new man at the helm. Nothing, that is, except for one important detail: Julius Malema had been taken back into the ANC fold.
Malema’s rise to power
The ANC leadership’s cardinal strategic blunder in the 1990s had been their failure to assert themselves and insist on the need to follow policies more favourable for a developmental state. Instead, they had adhered to the neoliberal agenda foisted on them by white Capital locally, and exploitative forces from abroad. The resultant economic growth rate was a sluggish 4.5%, which saw the top 20 percent prospering and the rest of the population sliding deeper into unemployment and poverty. Then, when the economy began to slow even further after the Economic Crisis of 2008, the ANC failed to see the obvious: conditions were right for a second revolution, and all that was needed to get it started was a charismatic leader who could mobilise the masses with populist rhetoric.
Whilst out in the cold, Julius Malema took every opportunity to exploit the grievances of the black majority and to begin to position himself as an alternative to the Old Guard within the ANC. Alarmed at his growing popularity with the disgruntled masses, the senior leadership decided it would be easier to rein in the rabble-rouser if he was brought back into the hierarchical confines of the party structure.
It soon became clear, however, that Malema had no intention of toeing the party line. On the contrary, he immediately set about isolating the senior leadership and denouncing them as ‘irrelevant degenerates’ who had lost touch with the people. In speech after speech he urged the swelling audiences to turn their backs on those who had sold out to white Capital, and began to promote his own radical policies centred on the slogan ‘Economic Freedom In Our Time.’
As the 2014 Elections approached, and the mood of the black masses became more militant, it grew apparent that not only was Julius Malema going to be king maker, but that it was increasingly probable he would be the one to be crowned king.
Six months before the General Election was due to be held, President Motlanthe offered his resignation as leader of the ANC. The way was now open for Malema to take control of the party and be nominated as the ANC’s presidential candidate. When the African National Congress was returned to power with an increased majority in 2014, Julius Malema became President of South Africa at the age of 33.
In the early days of his political career, he advocated nationalisation of the mines and redistribution of land without compensation. However, he soon saw that not only would such policies be counter productive, they held little appeal for the ordinary citizen. Instead he promised to embark on a massive housing project that would eradicate shacks and substandard RDP units. He proposed building 5 million dwellings within ten years, thereby creating a 5 trillion rand housing boom that would get the nation working and the economy on a rapid growth path.
And it wasn’t glorified hovels that he had in mind. These were properly constructed, architect designed houses built according to best practice and under strict supervision. All mod cons with 3 bedrooms, bath, shower, two toilets, garage and a small garden.
“You can’t expect people to achieve their potential,” said the President, “if you don’t treat them with respect. Everybody deserves dignity, and there is no dignity in living in a shack.’
StateBank was established with funding from the Treasury and the newly introduced Financial Transaction Tax, and long-term, interest-free loans were made available. Commencement of repayments was deferred for 3 years to allow homeowners time to become economically active.
Because the new houses came fully furnished, and were designed to incorporate a range of green technology features, local manufacturers of a wide range of products were given a massive boost.
With the housing boom fuelling the economy and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, the mood of the country changed from listless depression to enthusiastic optimism. New opportunities were being created with every passing day, and South Africa stirred, shrugged off its years of paralysis, and stepped into the future.
In the meantime Malema was rejigging government strategy on a variety of levels. One of the many slogans that was coined at this time was, ‘Don’t say it can’t be done. Just do it.” With a combination of youthful vigour, a clear vision of where South Africa was heading, and strong resolve to drag his critics along with him, he has overseen truly remarkable progress. So much so that, as we enter 2023, citizens from across the full spectrum of South African society can look to the future with a degree of confident optimism that would have been impossible to imagine ten years ago. Viva, Julius! Viva!