Julius Malema And The End Of South Africa's Rainbow Honeymoon

With many former foot-soldiers in the ANC movement living below the poverty line and white South Africans owning 96% of farms, Julius Malema is echoing Mugabe and receiving support amongst black South Africans...
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With many former foot-soldiers in the ANC movement living below the poverty line and white South Africans owning 96% of farms, Julius Malema is echoing Mugabe and receiving support amongst black South Africans...

The transition from the evils of apartheid to “Rainbow Nation” democracy in South Africa was almost fairytale-like in its smoothness and absence of political violence. Much of this was down to the astonishing statesmanship of the sainted Nelson Mandela, backed up by some highly capable ANC government ministers. The record of sound economic governance was mostly continued by Mandela’s successor as president, Thabo Mbeki, and, ever more falteringly, by the current incumbent, Jacob Zuma. But some underlying problems are now starting to come to the fore that could jeopardise the ANC’s achievements and the ongoing stability of the country. Chief among these difficulties is the growing frustration of a large part of the population that too few of the benefits of freedom and democracy have flowed down to them. This is creating a situation ripe for exploitation by populist loudmouths such as the leader of the ANC Youth Wing, Julius Malema.

In many respects, the ANC government did a remarkable job, and one that few outside observers predicted was possible, of salvaging what was a collapsing economy in the later years of the apartheid era. The ANC achieved this by reigning in its egalitarian principles and adopting the market economy-based policies that were largely dictated to it by the business elite, foreign investors and the tyranny of the global financial markets, which threatened to turn on the country if radical reforms to address the grotesque inequalities of apartheid were undertaken. The ANC’s main attempt in the economic sector to re-balance centuries of brutal positive discrimination in favour of whites was its modest Black Economic Empowerment initiative, which did at least succeed in producing a small, prosperous black elite. But, overall, the downside of the ANC’s cautious approach is that, seventeen years after it came to power, many of apartheid’s poisonous legacies remain. Chief amongst these is the continuing exclusion of much of the black population from economic prosperity. 30% of black South Africans are unemployed and they form the overwhelming majority of the 47% of citizens living below the poverty line. Meanwhile, the white community that was exclusively privileged under apartheid has an unemployment rate of only 5%, owns 96% of the farm land and still dominates huge swathes of big business despite being less than 10% of the population.

If it chooses to do so, the ANC hierarchy still retains ample authority to see off the threat of Malema, albeit at the cost of some unpleasantness on the streets in the process

Many of the people most affected by these inequalities (some of whom suffered greatly as foot-soldiers in the anti-apartheid struggle) are beginning to lose patience with their situation.  Their grievances provide ideal material for wannabee demagogues such as Julius Malema. Malema has seized on the concerns of the poor to make popular calls for the nationalisation of South Africa’s mines and the expropriation of lucrative white-owned farm land (or perhaps that should be called “re-expropriation” given the unjust way in which much of it was originally acquired by the whites).  He has also acquired notoriety, and copious free publicity, for his outrageous statements about killing white farmers, the sexual proclivities of his political opponents and in support of Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe.

The ANC leadership tolerated Malema’s excesses for several years, perhaps seeing him as a useful safety-valve for letting off populist steam, whilst occupying a position in the party that does not endow him with any policy authority.  But the level of support he has acquired, particularly amongst the young and disenfranchised, and the threat of violence it carries has now come to be seen by the leadership as an intolerable threat. An ANC disciplinary process against Malema was launched last week, charging him with sowing division in the party and bringing it into disrepute by calling for regime charge in neighbouring Botswana. Malema is also under investigation separately for fraud, a case prompted by his lavish lifestyle and the mysterious millions he appears to have acquired via his business interests, allegedly from government contracts. As if to illustrate Malema’s capacity to create upheaval, the opening of the process against him was accompanied by violent protests by his supporters against the ANC leadership outside party headquarters.

If it chooses to do so, the ANC hierarchy still retains ample authority to see off the threat of Malema, albeit at the cost of some unpleasantness on the streets in the process. The greater difficulty it faces is in dealing with some of the challenges he has highlighted. Unless the government can find a way to overcome the malign influence of the global economic system and tackle the grotesque inequalities that persist in South Africa, the frustrations of the excluded will fuel the rise of more Malemas and greater unrest in future.  Now that the long post-apartheid honeymoon appears to be truly over, South Africa’s ability to solve these problems will determine how far its journey from racist hellhole to prosperous democracy will go.

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