ANC Youth League Face Uphill Battle

The African National Congress (ANC) Youth League’s very public adoption of policies on mine nationalisation and land redistribution last week is an attempt to win friends in the coming battle to unseat ANC president Jacob Zuma.

The league adopted the policies at its three yearly national conference on 16 June, at which Julius Malema was re-elected president and ensured that his placemen took all key positions.

Malema is attempting to put together a broad alliance capable of ousting Zuma at the ANC’s centenary national conference at Mangaung next year, similar to the alliance that deposed Thabo Mbeki in favour of Zuma at the 2007 national conference in Polokwane.

Key differences exist between the alliance of Polokwane and the forces now coalescing to push Zuma out. Importantly, the ANC’s partners in the organised left are not united behind the move. Zuma – thanks in the main to his ties to the controversial Gupta family and complaints around rampant corruption in the state – has detractors in the South African Communist Party (SACP) and, especially, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). But they currently do not have the appetite for his removal.

Without Cosatu and the SACP it is effectively impossible to remove a sitting president of the ANC. The youth league’s bid is, moreover, backed only by small factions based in one or two provinces. Its new-found activism is a last ditch attempt to drive a wedge between Zuma and the organised left in the alliance.

It is certainly unlikely that Zuma or the mainstream in the ANC will be persuaded to support or implement wholesale nationalisation of industry, or the forcible, uncompensated expropriation of land. Both require amendment of South Africa’s Constitution, for which the ANC has neither the stomach nor the parliamentary numbers. Nor will the ruling party be willing to alienate organised agriculture, business and investor communities. The ANC’s track record in government and in pre-democracy negotiations demonstrates how seriously the party takes the views of these constituencies.

For Cosatu and the SACP the picture is more complicated. Both have championed land rights for the dispossessed majority and state ownership of key sectors like the mines and banks. This makes it less easy for the ruling party’s key allies to dismiss youth league calls for nationalisation and land redistribution. It is this gap that Malema has identified as fertile ground for cultivating support for his policies, which appear to chime with their long-standing demands for greater redistribution. His strategy is to fracture these organisations’ support for Zuma and his government.

The appointment of SACP and Young Communist League member David Masondo as MEC for finance in Limpopo, and his defection to the Malema camp, demonstrates there are some takers. But anything more than a trickle of former SACP or Cosatu leaders throwing their lot in with Malema is unlikely. The league thus began at its conference to take on these organisations directly, claiming to occupy ideological space “abandoned” by them. Malema has taken to speaking of the league as “the real vanguard organisation of the working class”.

The second leg of the strategy is the wholesale takeover of ANC branches by league cadres, who tend to be the youngest and most energetic members of the party’s local branches. Malema’s aim is to ensure his league agents become the branch delegates to the ANC policy conference in July and the elective national conference in December.

But Malema and the league’s new-found radicalism is vulnerable to all but the most superficial analysis. Malema surrounds himself with a coterie of benefactors and hangers-on who have little interest in nationalisation or any radical programme likely to disrupt their voracious feeding at the state’s trough. Among his closest current friends are some of the richest beneficiaries of Mbeki’s drive to create a black bourgeoisie, many of whom left the ANC following Polokwane, and have only returned because the patronage outside the ANC doesn’t match what’s available inside the ruling party. They see in Malema’s campaign an opportunity to avenge their ousting by the Zuma camp four years ago.

Mbeki supporters such as brothers Andile and Ayanda Nkuhlu – former state employees, ex-beneficiaries of murdered lawyer-turned-mining-magnate Brett Kebble and wealthy state-created businessmen who were key figures in Mbeki’s 2007 campaign – are among those now in Malema’s inner circle. They attended his victory party at a posh Sandton hotel last weekend. Nor were these the only representatives of black business at the league’s conference. The “business lounge” was filled with ANC-linked, Limpopo-originating entrepreneurs.

The immediate question would be why people who are doing so well out of the capitalist system – however skewed it may be in the South African context – would support radical calls for the seeming destruction of capitalism. Part of the answer is the post-Mbeki death of the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) model that propelled many of Malema’s closest friends to sudden wealth. The concept was so skewed in favour of a handful of ANC-linked businesspeople that it was unsustainable, and is currently being recrafted.

With the BEE route to wealth disappearing, the Zuma government is now looking to close another: state tenders. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s recent announcement that the national treasury would henceforth be in control of any state tenders above R500 000 (US$73 000) represents the most serious threat to the accumulation path of some of Malema’s most significant backers (see SAR Vol 29 No 17).

The global economic contraction of the last three years has had a particularly deleterious effect on South Africa’s BEE entrepreneurs, many of whose wealth was in highly leveraged equity, vulnerable to shifts in financial markets. Unsurprisingly, many back a seizure of concrete assets such as land and minerals, with the hope that they would be the new custodians of the state’s abundant assets – particularly since the league confirmed that its policy proposals do not involve the state operating the mines it nationalises, but outsourcing their operation.

The rapid development of a comprador class with growing designs on state assets is not a uniquely South African phenomenon, and is in fact a well-worn path in many post-colonial countries. What is unique to South Africa however is the abundance of these assets – and the vast potential for patronage it offers – particularly in mining and banking.

Despite his triumphant week, the stakes here are high for Malema. He and his business entourage are now in Zuma’s and Gordhan’s sights. By conflating the radical policy platform with political push to topple Zuma, the two goals are now also linked. A failure at next July’s policy conference to get ANC buy-in for their nationalisation and expropriation calls will almost certainly mean the end of any chance to unseat Zuma. Should Malema or any of his financial backers fall foul of treasury tendering regulations under Gordhan’s watchful eye, it could end not only his anti-Zuma campaign, but his career in politics.