Jacob Zuma was made to wait for three hours because the start of the ANCYL’s elective conference (Midrand, June 16 2011) was delayed by, among others, the late arrival of ANCYL president Julius Malema. Once the conference began, Zuma had to listen to Malema‘s wide-ranging, 90-minute speech — a speech that was not all that flattering of Zuma or the ANC. When Zuma eventually got to say his say, there was such disrespectful heckling, especially from a front row of seats where a section of the ANCYL leadership was seated. Apparently, such was the brazenness of the heckling that at one point in his speech, Zuma had to pause and confront one particularly indecent heckler directly. “U thini baba? U khuluma nami?” Excuse me sir? Are you talking to me?
Zuma’s u thini baba moment was an astonishing moment. It occurred in the middle of one of Zuma’s most important speeches of the year. The speech was important enough for Zuma to wait for three hours in order to deliver it. It was important enough for Zuma to keep a crowd of 55 000 South Africans at Orlando Stadium waiting for three hours — not to mention the millions who waited to see and hear him speak on television. Some commentators and observers have slated Zuma for standing the nation up in order to buy ANCYL support for his second term. Others took the Malema bait about the ANCYL being “the protector of Zuma”. All indications are that there was no love lost between Zuma and Malema. Not then and not now. Not even when Zuma touted Malema as a possible future president. They simply recognised how much they needed one another — each for his own political survival.
Ever since Malema burst onto the political scene in 2008, Zuma and Malema have been playing off each other like striker and midfielder. Such has been the intensity of their mutual need for one another it has been necessary for each to routinely check his potential for independence from the other. In 2008 and much of 2009 Malema’s midfielder role included deflecting attention away from Zuma so Zuma “could score the goals”. Of course Malema was but one of a dozen of Zuma “midfielders” — Mbalula, Vavi, Mantashe, Phosa, Nzimande etc. From late 2009 onwards Malema started showing signs of boredom with the midfielder role. Soon he was scoring own goals and real goals, politically and financially.
The u thini baba moment occurs smack on the day and occasion where Malema was officially declaring his graduation from both the midfield role and the striker’s role into the captain’s role. Where Zuma’s June 16 speech was framed in didactic and clarification mode, Malema’s June 16 speech was clearly framed as an agenda-setting speech. Malema’s lieutenants sensed that their leader had the upper hand and in their enthusiasm, to savour the moment, they catapulted Zuma into the u thini baba moment.
Was this the moment in which Zuma came to realise that his partnership with Malema had served its term and outlived its purpose? I want to suggest that the most significant thing at the ANCYL conference was not the waiting Zuma had to endure; it was not when Malema declared his loyalty to Zuma; it was not the shameful jilting of the crowd-in-waiting at Orlando Stadium; the most significant thing was rather the u thini baba moment. Like a spurned lover who knows deep down that the game is up but waits and pleads desperately for denial or unequivocal confirmation, the u-thini-baba moment was the moment Zuma both needed and dreaded.
When the moment came, the least Zuma could do was acknowledge it. So he pressed the pause button on his speech, forcing a moment of complete silence in the hall. Typically, he pushed his reading glasses up his nose bridge, bit his lower lip and wiping all traces of the smile that sometimes seems to sit permanently on his face, he turned around, looked the heckler in the eye and asked two terse questions: U thini baba? U khuluma nami? Say that again! Are you talking to me? The questions were rhetorical and the heckler new that instantly. No response was necessary. These were no questions, really. It was a growl accepting the challenge to war and verbalising a broken relationship and publicly acknowledging a deep sense of mutual disdain.
It was a moment of revelation for the youth league as well. It was a moment that unmasked the webs of deceit and flattery that had characterised Malema’s earlier pledge to Zuma that he was seated among his staunchest and most loyal supporters — his “protectors”. The u thini baba moment was therefore a moment of truth for both parties. Before that moment things were tricky and difficult for Zuma — much like looking for one’s lost or misplaced contact eye lenses in a dark room. After that moment things became clearer but no less difficult.
We now live in the post-u thini baba era. This is the era in which we have seen the installation of Mac Maharaj and Amos Masondo in Zuma’s presidential offices — the Union Buildings and Luthuli House. But alas! Seduced by the almost total victory at the ANCYL elections and buoyed by the animated responses to the nationalisation proposal, Malema and his supporters appear to have either missed or misread the significance of the u thini baba moment. From time to time they slip into pre-u thini baba mode. They seem to think that they are still covered with Zuma’s boundless blanket of goodwill and goodness. Malema and his friends do not seem to realise that Zuma has withdrawn the political overdraft he had given them.
In the process Malema and the league have proceeded to usurp foreign policy and economic policy leadership from both the government and the ruling party. This is how Malema has proceeded to install the nationalisation of mines debate at the centre of national discourse. And this is how he has issued some of the sharpest and most embarrassing criticisms of South African foreign policy positions — on Libya, on Ivory Coast and more recently and most brazenly on Botswana. Nor has Malema stopped doing what he does better than everyone else — manufacturing a thousand red herrings and plausible plastic issues to rationalise and justify his actions and utterances. One such red herring is the threat of disciplinary action against Malema, an attempt to reduce or remove his influence on the ANC succession debate.
Meanwhile the South African media have been hard at work — over the past month — trying to expose what they see as the unseemly side to Malema’s wealth. AfriForum has laid criminal charges. The Public Protector has indicated she will investigate certain aspects of the allegations. The ANC has a meeting with Malema and Co today. Will the ANC have the courage to act decisively? Will Zuma have the courage to act in a post-u thini baba manner or will he revert to a pre-u thini baba mode of action? All will soon be revealed.