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A lesson in political brinkmanship

President Jacob Zuma’s biggest strength is simply that most of us, including embattled ANC Youth League President Julius Malema, underestimate him. We look so much at his blunders and gaffes that we forget that he has in fact been a leader in the ANC for decades and has vast experience in that regard. We also seem to forget that behind that constant chuckle lies a veteran spy chief, mean negotiator and a master in political brinksmanship.

It seems Julius Malema and his bevy of advisors and political backers have underestimated the ANC president at every turn of their bruising power struggle. Malema’s biggest miscalculation was thinking Zuma wouldn’t act. Which he did.

We were all blind sighted by the seemingly meaningless show of unity the ANC’s top six leadership and didn’t see this bolt of lightning coming. I bet even Malema and his backers within the top six didn’t see it either, if they did, they must have seen it too late. Malema’s stunned silence after the suspension announcement is testimony to this.

Malema has shown himself to be a political novice who accumulated too much political clout too early. Before he learnt how it is dispensed, before he learnt the art of brinksmanship, as Dr Somadoda Fikeni put it. He just has no idea how far to push the envelope before backing down.

It somehow got to his head that he removed Thabo Mbeki from power. In his twisted mind he believes he put Zuma in power. This is so far from the truth it doesn’t even know how to spell the word “truth”.

Mbeki dug his own grave and even started burying himself in it after he had dug it. Also, it was Thabo Mbeki that unwittingly set the stage for Zuma’s rise to power. It is as simple as that. Malema, with all his insults played a miniscule role in that process.

There is an argument, by mostly Mbeki disciples, that Malema was allowed to insult Mbeki and is being dealt with now because he insulted Zuma, and this points to inconsistencies in how the ANC dispenses discipline. They are right, of course. But what they do not answer is how then Malema should be dealt with. Should he be left to continue with his barbaric politics and run the ANC (and the country with it) down?

It seems that the proponents of this argument miss the irony. That they are now defending the same Malema because it suits them just like Zuma turned a blind eye when it suited him.

He clearly wasn’t disciplined then because his madness suited those in power. If he were politically astute he would then know that he can’t use the same tactics against the very same people. It bares his lack of political maturity and even common sense.

There is also an argument that Malema is being persecuted, not for ill discipline, but rather for the league’s policy proposals on nationalisation and economic transformation. This is pure fiction designed to mobilise youth league members behind him. The Malema DC is purely about power within the ANC and its upcoming conference. The league’s preferred candidate for ANC president, Kgalema Motlanthe, has not demonstrated any views on nationalisation that are different from the official ANC position. He has in fact emphasised that position in the media and in Parliament.

What will be interesting is how the league will respond to this suspension given their undertaking that Malema will remain their President even if he is expelled by the ANC and their “absurd” assertion that the ANC NDC’s sanctions on league members are subject to a review by it.

The few league provinces that have reacted to the suspension have been hardly surprising but not as sharp and attacking as has been the norm.

The responses seem to forget the number of league structures that the Malema leadership has summarily disbanded and members that were summarily suspended pending charges, some of whom are still waiting for those charges months later, in contravention of the league’s constitution.

Evidence, rather than pointing to Zuma as a dictator points to tendencies exhibited by Malema himself towards opposing views within the league. In contrast to Malema’s assertions of dictatorship, Zuma has been accused of being indecisive and trying to please everybody. Poor leadership style yes, but hardly characteristics of a dictator.

Malema seems to have exhausted his political capital and has become a liability to his masters. He was a dedicated soldier for Fikile Mbalula’s campaign for the ANC’s secretary general position but we haven’t seen the astute Mbalula defending his friend as loudly as we would expect.

Julius has become, as he put it, a leper and people are afraid to be identified with him. One would remember Zuma, in the aftermath of the rape charges, being treated the same way. Is Malema in the same situation now? Will he bounce back like his former hero did?

One thing we must know is that when Malema goes he will not go with dignity like Mbeki did. He will not put the ANC or even the league ahead of himself.


  • Despite his full-time duty of being a father to two girls and one boy, Nco Dube spends ample time fulfilling his passion for reading and writing. He is not a journalist but he writes from the heart, from an ordinary "man on the street's" perspective. His views are shaped by what's in the public domain and his analysis informed by his extensive reading and interaction with other ordinary South Africans from all walks of life. Dube is a marketer by profession who runs an experiential marketing company and is also a freelance events producer. He went to Catholic schools including St Francis College in Marriannhill and studied at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Unisa. You can follow him on twitter: @ncodube and on Facebook: Nco Dube


  1. Sterling Ferguson Sterling Ferguson 5 April 2012

    @Dube, there is no reason in the 21st century to have a YL in SA because it serves no purpose. The YL is a 20th century idea that started in Europe and spread to other parts of the world. Hitler was able to use the YL to act as a cheer leaders for his rallies when he made his long speeches. Just like in SA the YL leaders tried to get rid of Hitler and he had them removed. Zuma has just done the same thing when Malema came out calling for his removal. It’s not so much the people underestimated Zuma, it’s because the ANC controls most of the jobs in that country so, if one speaks too loud, one can be blacklisted from working, regardless how much education one has. As professor Mbembe says in his book “on Postcolony” the rulers in Africa makes Zombies out of the population.

  2. Benzo Benzo 5 April 2012

    The best way out for Malema would be to arrogantly start his own political Youth party: the Economic Freedom Party. Such a party can continue beyond the age of the youth (30?? or 50??).

    He can than advocate his own SA ideals and the following will tell the nation how serious he need to be taken. The worst it can do is reduce the majority of the ANC in the next elections.

    Mr Zuma’s brinkmanship might just have gone “one bridge too far”.

  3. Rich Brauer Rich Brauer 5 April 2012

    “Will he bounce back like his former hero did?”

    My suspicion is that Zuma won’t let him.

    Unlike Mandela, who was old and not in the best of health, and the disgraced Mbeki, a victorious and relatively youthful Zuma can look forward to years as a kingmaker in the ANC after his two (presumptive) terms are up. He can be the power behind the throne, a role that may actually suit him better than the top job itself.

    And, to come back to Mbeki, I suspect Zuma learned the lesson well — don’t let your enemies off the hook, even for a moment. Once you decide to act, you’ve got to put your enemy down, for good.

    From what little I’ve heard of Zuma’s exile years, when the time comes for ruthlessness, he didn’t flinch. I expect no less here. I expect him to make Malema an example.

  4. Phuti Phuti 5 April 2012

    ANC has better leaders than the dancing brigade we r exposed to everyday.we need a new black party that can give the masses an alternative to the ANC .

  5. Counter Counter 5 April 2012

    We do not underestimate Zuma: he is indeed a fool. It’s just that Malema is a bigger fool. When idiots clash, one has to win.

  6. Kerensky Kerensky 5 April 2012

    In a sense, one can feel sorry for Malema. As he took on Mr Zuma, whose background as head of ANC intelligence made him enormously wise, and very cunning. And far wiser and more c0onnected than the ‘usefu’ idiots’ much beloved of the KGB and ANC intelligence – rabble rousers of the proletariat, and left-wing sympathisers (watch it Cosatu!) , who can be relied on to advance the cause of anti-democracy and then discarded when expedient.

  7. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 6 April 2012

    You all concentrate too much on Zuma and underestimate the “band of brothers” who were in “the struggle” together and, however much they disagree, will stick together when the organisation itself is under attack. Mbeki alientated them.

    And you also underestimate how much Mandela’s protection of Zuma counts in the world.


    I am glad to hear that Zuma is “relatively youthful” considering that he is older than me and Tofolux is convinced I have one foot in the grave!

  8. mxollisi mxollisi 6 April 2012

    Then what is a logic of this article eventually? Zuma is an eventual winner and Malema defeated? So it seems. Knowing the predictability of politics, I wont put my head on the block. So many things can go wrong in a week for Zuma. I was just thinking Malema will be on the spotlight for writing Malema files titled:” Zumas’s secre t files”

  9. MLH MLH 6 April 2012

    Why would Malema need to start a new YL? All people of 18 can vote; why wouldn’t he start an adult party? It may suit the ANC to treat everyone under 30 as kiddies, in order to allow their hasbeens to reap their unfair share of the goods, but isn’t it time that Malema took on the challenge of adulthood if he thinks he has it in him? Meanwhile, I shall simply pray that Zuma makes another huge blunder before December. For all his supposed cleverness, he’s screwed up before.

  10. Kerensky Kerensky 6 April 2012

    MLH – It is unlikely that Mr Malema would start a new party because hw knows better than most that the doctrine of the one-party state is entirely engrained in SA. He knows that SA is not a real democracy, and that the ANC’s values are above all to ensure a monopoly of power – this has been consistent through its history, and is nothing new. This is achieved by dispensing patronage and ensuring that the only competition for ideas and influence happens inside the party, not outside among the citizens as per a normal democracy. It is unfortunate for Mr Malema, who, if SA were a normal democracy, would start his own party and compete freely in the terrain of ideas and values.

  11. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 6 April 2012

    Malema has “Free Speech” in his own party and in the country.

    He does not have “Free Speech” in the ANC or any other party.

    And no-one wants him because he is a lose cannon who changes his mind and his policies from one day to the next.

  12. Benzo Benzo 6 April 2012

    @Kerensky: “He knows that SA is not a real democracy, and that the ANC’s values are above all to ensure a monopoly of power – this has been consistent through its history, and is nothing new.”

    The ANC has been a “resistance” party most of its exitence. This requires internal discipline. Today the ANC is a governing party with complete different operational requirements. The ANC show of unity a few days ago was a show of an ageing leadership of mostly 60+ people with dubious motives to support their leader’s humger for power. Have you seen any potential successors for this group in the age of 40+??

    Malema might be considered stupid by many but he has shown the guts to take on Mbeki and now Zuma. He might even have some serious supporters (with money) in the curtains. We have not seen Tokyo for a while, have we??

    Fro now, the BOA’s, the BOPA’s, the White Inc are patiently waiting for the “poor of the poor” and “the people on the ground” to create some serious sinkholes in the “unified carpet” of the ANC’s trusted Voters base of loyality.

    Yes, you are right…this is not a normal democracy but all hope and pray that another African uprising against an unwanted regime can be prevented.

  13. Rich Brauer Rich Brauer 6 April 2012

    @Lyndall Beddy: Age is all in the mind! And I say that as a sprightly 37 year old.

    Although, it does seem that sometimes the joints have a mind of their own!

  14. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 6 April 2012

    If Malema wants “Free Speech” for himself his only alternative is to create his own party.

    Every other party, including the ANC, will expect him to support party policy.

  15. MLH MLH 7 April 2012

    @Kerensky: I realise all that, but the man would prove he had some backbone if he took up the challenge. Or are you making the point that South Africans only ever back the winning team?

  16. Judith Judith 7 April 2012

    It is an interesting political dynamic. Zuma is an experienced and wiley old weasel. Julius is a fast learner. Where the rest of the ANC elders stand is worth considering as they don’t seem to like each other very much and younger men and women are very quiet right now!

    I think the old guard may well be replaced to bring in new ideas and solutions. I am absolutely intrigue by this power play

  17. African Observer African Observer 8 April 2012

    Would it be fair to say that South Africans, like people all over Africa, tend to always back the most powerful leader and the leader who can dispense the most patronage and protection? Is this not the reason why, from Somalia to South Africa, it is often the least ethical and the most manipulative leaders, from Aideed to Z…, who carry the final vote? It is logical, as people want peace. It is understandable, as people want to live their lives. But it is also tragic, as achieving peace requires forsaking justice.

  18. brian b brian b 8 April 2012

    Nco, you have much interesting insight into the machinations of the ruling cabal.

    The country is bleeding while those in power play out their charades like some re-enactment of a medieval saga.

    Its time that they realize that South Africa needs some solid and visionary leadership in order to reach its full potential for all, not just for the “chosen ones”.

  19. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 9 April 2012

    I don’t find it surprising that the ANC did not tackle both Mbeki and Malema at the same time. They did not want a war on two fronts. As the saying goes “divide and conquer”.

  20. africalover africalover 9 April 2012

    insightful view on Malema, who convinced himself he was the ANC kingmaker…. JZ played him so well it got to his head. That JZ is much smarter than he is made to be reads in his own journey, from an illiterate peasant to be to a reasonably dignified head of state. And his sure choice of suits.
    Am with you 100% on that. And Julius will most likely be deprived of his ill-goten riches. Too late for deal.
    But Julius ‘s populist cum racist rhetoric has found echo among the deprived and desperate and this might have some impact in the future

  21. lyndall Beddy lyndall Beddy 10 April 2012

    Malema convinced himself that not only was he the “kingmaker” but also the “policymaker”.

    No democractic party in the world has a one man policymaker – those governments are dictatorships.

    But dictatoships seem normal in Africa where tribal chiefs have ALL the power.

  22. Jobe Jobe 10 April 2012

    This article is defending President Zuma and paints him in a positive light.The man has failed the country.I hope the delegates in December will be sane enough to remove him from power.

  23. Musa Musa 10 April 2012

    Careful now, a week is along time in politics. Think of the turf war between Mabula and Gigaba, Malema will be useful then as he is now. 10-15 years time these boys will tell you how they everntually defeated Zuma. It’s the way of life in the jungle.

  24. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 11 April 2012


    What would be the point of removing Zuma? If you want to change policy you would have to vote out the ANC/SACP!

  25. Rhetoric Rhetoric 11 April 2012

    Lets assume JZ does get his way in Mangaung and become the ANC president for the second time. Can this country really afford another 5 years of leadership vaccum? The entire ANC leadership knows fairly well that Zuma is not even close to be the best candidate to lead the ANC let alone a country with so many historical challenges like SA. Sometimes i think Malema would far well as a President than Zuma

  26. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 13 April 2012


    Zuma is not the leader of the ANC, but the Front chosen by the Inner Circle who are the leadership, which appears at present to be divided on everything including policy. THAT is what has stalled the ANC/SACP/COSATU from effective government for 17 years – all the Alliance Partners have totally different policies.

  27. Lincoln Lincoln 11 May 2012

    How ironic that you say that Malema lacks brinkmanship and yet you want Kgalema to openly say that he supports nationalization. This will definately get him into trouble. Fikile supports Malema if you do not follow this then i am gobsmacked at how you can ignore this after Fikile has shared the stage with Juju so many times, i guess you want him to be his nanny and baby him everyday. I am so gald that you see how the YL is responding to his suspension, they are fully behind him. It seems every article that i read about you is about Malema Vs Zuma, well you are wrong. The YL will not surrender its autonomy and simply attacking Malema’s personality will not deter some of us that believe that Juju is the best person and leader to articulate the views of the league fearlessly and yes sometimes robustly which we feel is radical. Brinkmanship?JZ happens to be supported by people who have something to gain as he rewards those who closest to him. As you say the circumstances and the situation at the time suited his strategy of him being a victim, Mbeki was a difficult astitute leader who did not suffer fools. However using surbterfuge and devious means to get rid of Malema will not stop us from believing even post Mangaung we will never surrender The ANCYL have never fought a war of personalities and we will betraying the image, profile and the nature of this vibrant, energetic and visionary organisation. The YL is conscious of the fact that JZ is old and we will inherit this…

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