The Legacy of Julius Malema In South African Politics

Julius Malema Homeless
Julius Malema

AFRICANGLOBE – Julius Malema is a political creation of the 2007 fall of South Africa’s former President, Thabo Mbeki, from power. As the newly-elected leader of the ANC Youth League, Malema became instrumental in Mbeki’s ouster as the rugged kingmaker of the rising political star, Jacob Zuma.

Julius Malema was so assured of the correctness of Zuma’s take over that he declared publicly that he and the youth of South Africa were prepared to die and kill for Zuma. Perhaps more than any other, that statement earned Malema a spot on the global political screen.

Julius Malema proceeded to entertain, puzzle and mesmerize his national audience; he was ‘something’ different to different people. Some found him offensive and threatening. To them, he was a reckless ideologue, an idiotic demagogue bordering on the notorious Idi Amin of Uganda.

To others, the same Julius Malema was as a charming and inspirational leader, a clever political tactician with a penetrating mind. He saw what ordinary South Africans did not and told it in uncensored arrogance of ‘I say what I like.’ Admirers would have walked to the end of the world with Julius Malema; their political darling and charismatic hero.

Others were captured by Malema’s capability to jolt. He did not have the oratory fire of a Malcolm X or the humility and disarming intellect of Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere. But with Malema around, there never was a dull moment. He always told the truth as he saw it and in unedited fashion. For his brash frankness he was a newsmaker and repeatedly got into trouble and, ultimately, came to grief.

In February 2012, Malema was officially expelled from the ANC on the grounds of causing division in the party. By that ‘de-stooling’, Malema was deprived of a national platform and international visibility. All that is occasionally heard of him now is his legal woes.

Commentators have argued that banishing Malema to political wilderness was a case of killing the messenger, that a did have a valuable message for South Africa that transcended his ill-advised rhetoric, and even the claim of ‘causing division’ in the party.

Granted, Malema did fuel an ideological split in the ANC. But he did not cause that divide; he merely magnified what already existed. The Ideological fissure between the conservatives and the radicals in ANC was there long before Malema, and may remain there long after him. The ANC must ultimately come to grips with the fact of that divide.

Black South Africans remain horrifically poor in absolute and relative terms. Since 2009, the country has actually overtaken Brazil as the most skewed society in the world. How to rectify that explosive rich-poor gap is precisely where Malema and his party bosses disagreed.

Claiming to speak for the forgotten poor, Malema argued that an ANC government is politically obliged to nationalize the means of production such as mines and White-owned farmlands. By doing so, that government would position itself to redistribute the wealth derived thereof to blunt the provocative inequality between the White haves and the Black have-nots.

The left thus rejects the conventional wisdom that the government’s first priority is to sustain economic growth which, in turn, tackles such social hiccups as unemployment and political instability. To the left, following that route invites foreign investments, which are ultimately unwelcome because they perpetuate offensive foreign arrogance and crippling economic dependency.

In contemporary South Africa, the idea of land confiscation and nationalization of mines are at once popular and explosive. They appeal, firstly, because they are widely believed to be intrinsically valid and justifiable methods to address the issue of poverty. Secondly, they contain a dose of legitimate anti-White sentiments. Negative racial undercurrents remain a potent component of the country’s politics.

Thirdly COSATU, South Africa’s largest federation of unions, laments that the apartheid economy of exploitation remains intact. COSATU is the powerful partner in the ANC’s government of tripartite alliance. Will a time come when this vocal mega-labor federation starts to agitate for the dismantling of the current economy?

Finally, anti-White wealth mentality has slowly but surely seeped into the moderate circles. For one, the distinguished Professor Ali Mazrui regrets that abolishment of apartheid excluded economic concessions for Blacks. In is own words, in 1994 the “White man said to the Black man, ‘take the crown but we will keep the jewels.'” Apartheid’s economic inequality was thus entrenched.

To mitigate the agony of economic ‘dream-deferred’, Julius Malema’s ideological commitment was to snatch back some of the ‘jewels’ for himself and his Black fellows by any means necessary. He can be forgiven for his passionate views; he is an angry young man in a hurry. But the complaint of economic ‘justice-delayed’ has recently been echoed by far less radical elements.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu Emeritus is by no means a man of Julius Malema’s ideological persuasion. In August 2011, however, he raised many eyebrows by calling for imposition of a tax on White wealth to speed up South Africa’s economic transformation.

The so-called Malema’s revolutionary agenda resonates as ‘conventional’ in the Black community. As a result of Malema’s campaign it has widespread appeal, perhaps strong enough to destabilize the country. Could Malema reappear in a different guise?


James N. Kariuki is a Professor of International Relations based in South Africa.