The re-election of Julius Malema as president of the ANC Youth League came as no surprise. The platform afforded him by the court challenge to his singing “the song whose name will not be mentioned” settled any doubt as to his intelligence, the fact of him being so articulate also consolidated his support base. As unpalatable as it may be to many, Malema is an integral part of our country’s future. He and those who support him will determine who leads the ANC and the country in the next few years. As distressing as this may be to some, Malema and the agenda he espouses will also be part of this future. Debates about who will be the next president of the republic, nationalisation, the accumulation of material wealth, land seizures and race are therefore on the agenda.
Though I do not agree with Malema’s stance on many issues, I do think he fulfills an important role in ensuring that these types of issues which are on the national agenda are debated. Clearly, for a large section of the population and black youth in particular, these issues are central to their interests. The fact that they are on the agenda is testimony to the weaknesses and failures of the ruling party and its allies. Seventeen years after democracy and freedom, unemployment, poverty, landlessness, the lack of and poor service delivery, housing etc all remain as stark and significant reminders to the majority of the population of their recent oppression and continuing exploitation. Malema, in his abrasive, populist fashion, speaks to this reality. It is an indictment of the left or progressive organisations that it is his discourse which is setting the pace and direction of the debate.
Watching his performance at the ANCYL conference as shown by the media, it was not difficult to see why. Malema is a shrewd politician. He is articulate and has a sense of humour. Prone to outbursts and what appear to be wild statements, he clearly has a sense of politics as theatre. By comparison, other youth leaders seem pretty tame and offer very little in direction. The challenge is on these other future leaders to offer an alternative vision to the one Malema does. So far this has been sorely lacking. The reasons for this are complex, but there are at least three important reasons for this lack:
• The left in South Africa has been co-opted by Zuma or marginalised where it has refused to be. The SACP, SACP YCL, Cosatu and fledgling Democratic Left all either articulate an orthodox Marxist position, which does not speak to the realities of the rapidly developing, modern world, or offer far-fetched programmes that do not really speak to reality. Cope has been found wanting in its own critique and policy offerings in this regard, leaving the potential for a social democratic alternative untapped.
• The other youth formations offer essentially liberal or reformist views that do not speak to the interests of youth. Simply responding to Malema is not good enough. These must articulate a radical vision if they are to capture the imagination of the youth.
• The ruling party itself has run out of ideas and is selling what is essentially “mutton dressed up as lamb”. The policies of the ANC do not address the challenges people face. Voters have been convinced by the continued promise of the ANC to eventually “get to them in the queue”, as it were. The opposition parties have all largely failed to capture the imagination of the population in general but of the youth in particular in this regard.
It is this vacuum that Malema exploits so adeptly.
How can this reality be addressed and the blunt instrument Malema promises to use do the necessary surgery?
Firstly, there needs to be a frank and honest debate about the fact that part of the transition from apartheid to democracy was an agreement not to tamper with the economy too radically. As a result, the patterns of ownership of wealth and of development reproduced under apartheid capitalism have remained largely intact. This reproduction of the political economy of apartheid capitalism threatens the future stability of our country. There has to be a real alternative, an actual new growth, development and redistribution path.
Secondly, this reality is experienced largely in racial terms, even though it is essentially a matter of class or, in strict terms, the relationship most people have to the wealth accumulated and the surplus generated in our economy.
Thirdly and related to the previous point, the realities of gender, age and disability, and even of sexual identities and sexual preferences all create different realities experienced by these groups in our society. Young people and the elderly are marginalised, as are women, for example and while there have been some measures to address the excesses of this marginalisation, such as welfare grants and pensions, in reality nothing has been done to address the underlying power relations that give rise to this marginalisation. We need to have an ongoing dialogue about identity so that we can forge a new South African identity that unites us.
The large portion of youth in our population and the incredible alienation and marginalisation of these young people make them fertile ground for the likes of Malema. Selling what seems like quick fixes is the essence of populism. Instead, a radical programme of economic transformation, managed properly and driven at local level will go a long way to addressing this reality that youth experience. This along with a real national dialogue on our national identity is essential. The alternative is a future of social unrest, fuelled by populism and at the end of it all, nothing but the destruction of wealth, property and social capital.
Radical policies such as distributing government land, setting up enterprises owned by communities, creating local savings and loans institutions, distributing shares in state-owned enterprises, raising solidarity taxes from the wealthy, radically deregulating sectors of the economy that will lead to radical price decreases and access to better services such as in ICT, energy generation and similar measures are what is required to get the rates of growth needed to ensure that those marginalised and excluded in our society, the youth among them, get a stake in society.
It is not Malema that is the problem, it is the rest of us. We are guilty of a lack of imagination, of visionless leadership and of living in the comfort zone of the middle-class cocoon our political economy reproduces for just enough people to keep the status quo as it is. The tipping point that will end this status quo is upon us and Malema may well be the lever.