The 30th of August – 30 BC – is the day on which Cleopatra the famous seventh queen of Egypt committed suicide. Apparently, she deliberately poked an Egyptian cobra until it was so angry it bit her. In Shakespeare’s version of the story – Anthony and Cleopatra – Cleopatra died holding the snake that bit her against her breasts. But that is but one of several theories on how beautiful Cleopatra is supposed to have died.

Will the 30th day of August 2011 also become famous as the day on which Julius Malema got bitten by a political cobra called Jacob Zuma? Or am I mixing my metaphors here? Maybe this day will go down in history as the day when Jacob  Zuma got bitten by a political cobra called Julius Malema.  There is a third possibility. Recent descriptions of the ANC as an elephant which moves slowly and as not-a-pig which is capable of eating its children notwithstanding; could it be that the ANC is the cobra in our unfolding story?  Could it be that having been beneficiaries of the cobra, Malema and Zuma have now become victims of the cobra? Afterall, both Zuma and Malema have, in various ways, been poking the cobra rather too vigorously and too frequently in recent years.

On 30th August, when the president of the ANCYL, Julius Malema, appeared before the disciplinary committee of the ANC, downtown Johannesburg was brought to a standstill. But ‘standstill’ is an understatement. There was mayhem in the streets of Johannesburg and chaos around the ANC headquarters.  There was looting in the shops, T-shirts bearing the picture of Jacob Zuma were openly burnt  and there were running battles with the between the police and the youth. The impact of Malema’s marauding foot soldiers has been such that the ANC has decided to move further sessions of the disciplinary hearings to a secret venue.

Though the party would, for obvious reasons, wish to expedite the disciplinary hearings, it seems unlikely that these hearings will be short.  Firstly, Malema is not the only person charged, the vast majority of his newly elected executive committee members have also been charged, producing a real prospect for rather bulky and time consuming hearings. Secondly, the reported engagement of a well-known lawyer Adv Dali Mpofu to represent Malema and Co. – stretching the ANC constitutional provisions to their limits – signals the seriousness with which Malema is taking these charges.

He is clearly prepared to explore all legal and procedural nooks crannies at his disposal to avoid a guilty verdict. Thirdly, the engagement of Mpofu may signal, an as-of-now unspoken intent to take the matter to the formal courts of the land should the disciplinary process produce a negative verdict for Malema. Fourth, though I am yet to see the full list of charges, the most known charges as we have them from the formal statements of the party are rather vague. They are the charges of ‘bringing the organization into disrepute’ and ‘sowing division in the party’.

The problem with these charges is that not only Malema but several others could and perhaps should have been slapped with these charges since 2008. Why now?  Why Malema? Again? Fifth, the vagueness of the charges may serve to strengthen youth league perceptions and allegations that these are nothing but trumped up charges intended to thwart the youth league’s radical economic programme of nationalization of the mines and to remove Malema (and neutralize the Malema factor)  in the run up to the December 2012 ANC elective conference.

Sixth, the party cannot ‘rush the hearings’ without appearing to disregard due process and therefore intent on reaching a particular outcome. Long and drawn out disciplinary hearings are not in the interest of both parties – but the ANC stands to lose the most.

Should Malema be found guilty, the censures available for recommendation by the disciplinary committee as per ANC constitution are a) reprimand, b) payment (in cash or in kind), c) suspension, d) expulsion.

The vagueness of the charges notwithstanding, a guilty verdict for Malema is not altogether impossible. This is especially because upon entering a plea bargain with the party disciplinary committee sixteen months ago, Malema received a ‘suspended sentence’. Should he be found guilty again, he may be deemed a ‘repeat offender’ and therefore served with a harsher sentence than he received before. The ‘cost’ of Malema’s antics and utterances to the party (and to the country) could be such that the opinion of those who matter may have reached a tipping point against Malema. The ANC does have a track record of letting inconvenient and costly individual members go.

Could this be Malema’s moment to be let go? The party through its disciplinary committee must still provide compelling and coherent evidence to support the charges they have laid against Malema. Sloppiness in argumentation will only reinforce suspicions of trumped up charges.

Nor should we miss the political, economic and structural issues at the heart of the unfolding battle. There is an ongoing battle for political leadership in the ANC today. Young Malema, arguably the most eloquent leader in the entire ANC at this time, fancies himself as leader of the entire party and perhaps also as leader of the entire country soon. By extension, the ANCYL which he leads, having taken the lead in proposing some of the most radical political and economic programmes for the country, fancies itself as policy agenda setter for the party and its alliance partners – the ‘new vanguard of the poor and working classes’.

As if the frequent war of words between the ANC and its alliance partners are not enough, the ANC now has to manage its own openly rebellious sub-structure. But how will they do this? Previous remedies used to deal with internal instability include disbanding of `leadership structures and the appointment of interim structures.  We can expect something similar, should Malema be found guilty. Rumours of intentions to disband the entire youth league are probably exaggerated.  It must be remembered that until recently, the youth league has been a ‘useful’ tool in the hands of the ANC (leadership).

What if Malema is found guilty? So what indeed! Whatever happens to Malema, indications are that his fingerprints are all over the body of the ANC and will be there for some time.  It must be remembered that except for his rhetorical abilities, Malema is no aberration in the context of some of the current crop of leaders from the ANC and from other political parties.

Malema enjoys neither a monopoly nor exclusive copyright on allegations of tender irregularities, a sense of entitlement, inflated egos and a penchant for vulgar displays of wealth. Here lies our deeper problem as a country.  Except for the rhetoric about nationalization of mines, there are no ideological, political, ethical and lifestyle differences between those who support Malema and those who do not. What Malema has on the rest of them is his ability to use his rhetorical talent to artificially reach out to the bourgeoning ranks of the hopeless and the disenchanted – the majority of whom are youth. His tactics may be artificial but the hopelessness and the disenchantment out there is real.

So what if Malema is suspended or dismissed? Does it mean that Zuma wins? Let us not miss the irony of this entire saga. A little less than five years ago, ANC members were showing their support for Jacob Zuma by burning t-shirts bearing the picture of his predecessor Thabo Mbeki.

On August 30th 2011 we saw Zuma at the receiving end of the same practice. Those who pledged to kill for Zuma a few years ago, were baying for Zuma’s blood. But the irony deepens. Zuma detractors used the same tactics used by Zuma when he appeared in court to face a series of indictments related to corruption and rape. Indeed the very spot – Johannesburg library gardens – where men and women gathered to sing their praises to Zuma during his rape trial – was the spot where they gathered to denounce him.

If Malema is suspended or expelled, his dizzying political career may be brutally cut short. Yet many in the party will not fail to see Malema as a typical political child of Zuma – an outcome of the Zuma era and style of leadership. Contrary to what Gwede Mantashe – ANC General Secretary – said in the press conference of 30 August 2011, some will trace the problem of growing anarchy in the party, not merely back to Malema and not only back to the ANCYL; but to Zuma himself.  Malema may lose, but so may Zuma.

Zuma may run out of support for his second term bid with or without Malema. With Malema having thrown the proverbial first stone, Zuma may get his second term but only as a weakened, extremely vulnerable lame-duck president. The cobra is likely to bite both Malema and Zuma. Such is the venom of the Egyptian cobra that its victims die slowly and painlessly – without realising that they are actually dying. Should we move towards a situation of goodbye to Malema and farewell to Zuma, who might we be saying hello to? Is there a politician whose first name rhymes with Malema’s second? Such a politician may stand to benefit.


  • Tinyiko Sam Maluleke is a South African academic (currently attached to the University of South Africa [UNISA]) who suffers from restlessness, intellectual insomnia, insatiable curiosity, a facsination with ideas, a passion for justice, a crazy imagination as well as a big appetite for music, reading and writing. He has lectured briefly at such universities as Hamburg in Germany, Lausanne in Switzerland, University of Nairobi in Kenya and Lund University in Sweden - amongst others.


Tinyiko Sam Maluleke

Tinyiko Sam Maluleke is a South African academic (currently attached to the University of South Africa [UNISA]) who suffers from restlessness, intellectual insomnia, insatiable curiosity, a facsination...

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