Late on Saturday morning, in true African time, a ramrod Cyril Ramaphosa delivered a flinty speech that was not only a preamble to the African National Congress’s verdict on youth league leader Julius Malema, but a warning sign to the rest of the party: ill-discipline will not be tolerated. By upholding the guilty verdict, the national disciplinary committee of appeals stripped Malema of his power and with no real support outside of the ANC Youth League structures, and with the tax collector, public protector, and Special Investigating Unit closing in on him, it would take a miracle of biblical proportions to resurrect this cadre’s political career from the tomb it’s been chucked in.
But was the ANC’s decision disciplining or silencing the ANC Youth League?
Before Julius Malema entered the political scene, there was very little public discourse on the acute socio-economic issues faced by a growing number of young South Africans today. After 18 years of political freedom, more than half of South Africans under the age of 25 remain unemployed – among the highest jobless rates in the world. Many live idly with few prospects of ever being employed. The promise of education as the gateway to a better life remains questionable on a good day, as too few are able to meet the requirements necessary to enter into higher education institutions. For those who do qualify for university admission, the competition for a place in a university has intensified, as the country simply does not have enough institutions of higher learning. The bulk of South Africa’s youth has been relegated to front row seats to watch a small portion of the country live Mandela’s dream.
Malema’s political career may have been short-lived, but the issues that gave rise to his popularity continue to plague the country. Despite Malema not being the preferred candidate for the role of vanguard for the poor, there is concern that the ANC used its disciplinary processes to shut down the debate on nationalisation of mines in South Africa, rather than enforcing discipline within its ranks.
The ANC was forced to investigate nationalisation as a possible alternative policy largely because of the pressure exerted by the league. Since 1994, the ANC has generally leaned toward mainstream growth development models supplemented by welfare and job creation initiatives as the main strategy to improve socio-economic conditions. Adam Smith’s promise of a trickling down of wealth has, however, failed in South Africa just as we’ve seen it fail in more “developed” economies. Like their global counterparts, ordinary South Africans are no longer buying into capitalists’ solution and are ready to hear alternatives.
Albeit badly handled, the nationalisation debate was the first time that a larger portion of the country took part in a national discussion on the economic path that South Africa is on. Serious questions were raised on the efficacy of current policies, and even though it was from structures within the ANC, the debate was youth-driven. It was not a sexy or nation-building topic, and it was bound to make those in the wealthier classes uncomfortable, but it was a natural next step for a country whose citizens had been cordial to each other for too long, afraid to ask the difficult questions about the inequitable status quo.
Malema’s call for nationalisation of mines and banks and expropriation of land, although not on the official charge sheet, until this morning, was seen by many to be the real reason why the ANC acted firmly and decisively against the ANC Youth League leadership. Capitalists who had popped champagne at the young leader’s downfall were forced to spit their Moet back in the bottle when the ANC’s secretary general Gwede Mantashe announced at a press conference in Luthuli House on Monday, that nationalisation was “not a Malema issue, but an ANC issue”. The ANC may have been seeking to reassure its youth members in particular that the decisive actions taken against the ANCYL president were not meant to close the discussion on alternative economic policies for development. However, the nationalisation debate is back in the corridors of Luthuli House and no longer encouraged for robust public debate.
If this was a move by the ANC to shut down dissenting opinion on economic policy, it is not a wise one, because South Africa’s youth will not go hungry indefinitely. Political and economic decisions cannot continue to be made far from the prying eyes of those who are expected to religiously vote for the ANC while accepting all its decisions without question.
More broadly, South Africans must accept that the honeymoon phase of the rainbow nation’s marriage is over. The Malema-induced fear that engulfed the wealthier classes is also a reflection of a nation that does not trust the strength of the democratic institutions in the country. Celebrating Malema’s demise simply because he made certain classes uncomfortable is not a win for our young democracy. If South Africa is to move toward a meaningful democratic and economic solution for all its citizens, there must be better engagement on difficult discussions required to move the country forward between people from different social and economic backgrounds.
Once the dust clears and wounds heal, the ANCYL will have to pick a new leader to carry its cause to the Mangaung conference. There’s already growing speculation that Ronald Lamola may be the next leader, a man described by a Mail & Guardian source as “more aggressive than Julius [Malema] and … without the abrasiveness”. It’s still early to tell whether a new boogie man is being created or whether, if elected, the lawyer will better articulate the youth message without the distractions from questionable lifestyle choices. What is clear is that Malema’s political career may be buried, but the issues remain unaddressed.
As South Africans, we assume that our society is stable, developed, and incapable of the kinds of outbreaks that occurred in North Africa early last year. But the recurring xenophobic attacks and the violence of service delivery protests should be a signal that there is still much for this country to resolve. If there is indeed truth to the saying that “democracy lives in the ANC”, it would not be in South Africa’s best interest for the ANC to muffle its youth.