JULIUS ‘Juju’ Malema, born March 3, 1981, in the northern Limpopo province has suddenly become the new bold face of South African politics. The African National Congress (ANC) Youth League president has in the past five years experienced a meteoric rise to national, if not international recognition. So love him or hate him, you simply cannot ignore him at all.
In a country that is at a crossroads in terms of both its identity and its morality, Malema appears to be slowly emerging as a compass for the country’s next future direction.
Just a few months ago, he was overwhelmingly given a new mandate to be the leader of the vocal Youth League at its major conference in June at Midrand.
But perhaps what is more significant is the manner in which he retained the presidency of the youth movement. Unlike at the previous congress at Mangaung in April 2008 where he won a hotly disputed contest against Saki Mofokeng, this time Malema romped to victory virtually unchallenged. The ANC Youth League Chairperson for the Gauteng province Lebogang Maile was rumoured to be the only possible credible challenger to Malema but when even his own province nominated Malema as its preferred candidate, the race was immediately declared a no-contest.
So as fate would have it, Malema was re-elected unopposed after being resoundingly backed by all the provinces.
Traditionally, the Youth League is highly regarded as a serious kingmaker in the higher echelons of ANC politics and Malema has moved fast to reassert its role in this regard. In a thinly veiled threat to the ANC President Jacob Zuma, he declared during his victory speech on June 16 that the Youth League would only back candidates who also publicly backed its policy positions.
Pointedly, the two major positions that the youth movement is already pushing for seem to be at loggerheads with Zuma’s interests.
Firstly, the youth league is pushing for a radical leadership renewal at the centenary 2012 conference in Mangaung. Specifically, they are calling for youth candidates to dominate the new leadership that will be elected at the congress. According to the plan, the Youth League will ensure that most of the old guard will be challenged by younger candidates who will be fully backed by it.
In particular, they are seeking for the election of their former leader, the firebrand Fikile Mbalula, as the new Secretary General. In so doing, they find themselves at direct loggerhead with the Young Communist League (YCL), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and potentially the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) who are most likely to re-affirm their support for the incumbent, Gwede Mantashe.
Unenviably, Zuma has to decide whether to side with the Youth League or the traditional Alliance partners. This is a very tough call for him to make since it could make or break him at the 2012 Congress if he backs the losing horse.
Secondly, the Youth League appears more determined than ever to continue with their unequivocal stance on nationalisation with the racially skewed mining industry as it primary target. Under Zuma’s leadership, the ANC appears to be more diplomatic and ambivalent. This is in direct contrast to the decisive position that the Youth League has taken already.
Curiously though, while the Youth League stance has been dismissed as populist by many critics, it is actually a more realistic approach from a broader national perspective. A lot of South Africans especially the black majority are most likely to be swayed by the Youth League’s radical rhetoric as it is. Significantly, it is the black youth who are wallowing in the muddy waters of ever growing unemployment who are most likely to prove to be the most vocal supporters of the Youth League.
So it appears that on this matter, Malema and his colleagues are definitely gauging the restless and volatile mood in the country. In this regard, it appears that the Youth League has successfully outmanoeuvred the supposedly leftist elements in the Alliance such as the YCL, SACP and COSATU.
And so it happens that in strategically positioning itself as the most relevant political institution at grassroots community level, the Youth League, read Malema, has also created several other enemies in the same process.
A mere glance at the political dynamics within the Alliance politics clearly suggests that the relationship between the Youth League and the partners has soured in the last few years. There is no love lost between the Youth League and the likes of YCL, SACP and COSATU.
The mood in the top brass also appears opaque and less crystal at the moment. However, it appears that the Youth League also has a lot of backers there. In particular it seems Mbalula and the Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe have both emerged as the youth movement’s point persons.
Another dark horse, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, has also thrown her lot with the Youth League. She was seen on Malema’s side and even kissed him in public in a spectacular show of strong support during the ‘hate speech’ trial that emanated from his controversial song ‘Dubula Ibhunu’ (Shoot the Boer).
Outside the ANC and Alliance politics, the Youth League has obvious enemies such as a hostile media which the youth movement perceives to be largely dominated by the conservative and patriarchal white establishment.
The Youth League appears to have no sympathisers among the opposition parties either, with the Democratic Alliance as its most vocal nemesis.
It is in this context that Malema and the Youth League find themselves in the heat of battle at the moment. This is the battle for the soul and future of the ANC that will culminate in the elective Mangaung conference in 2012.
The rise in the number of attacks on both Malema and the Youth League are mere symptoms of a bigger political battle as in the case of Zuma in the run up to the Polokwane conference in 2007.
The big question now is whether Malema has the same level of conviction, dexterity and may be luck, to survive the onslaught just as Zuma did with both the serious rape and corruption charges in 2005.
As they say the more things change, the more they stay the same. Indeed history keeps repeating itself especially when it comes to the politics of the ANC.
These are very interesting times for South Africa.