OPINION: Mbalula and Malema hastened ANC slide
Fikile Mbalula and Julius Malema were accelerators of the decline of democracy within the ANC, and ultimately of the destruction of the party. They have much to answer for, but eschew discursive engagement – one of the reasons why they contributed to the breakdown.
State capture has been perpetrated by President Jacob Zuma, the Gupta family and their various sycophants, but the ground for Zuma’s ascendancy and the conditions he needed to loot the state – his dominance of the ANC, his ability to evade accountability and the decline of democracy within the governing party – were prepared by his political allies before he became president. The ANC Youth League was crucial in securing these conditions.
As president of the league from 2004 to 2008, Mbalula blundered into a type of leadership that changed the culture of the league, and of the ANC. He became president after Malusi Gigaba completed his third term as youth leader. Gigaba at that time was fairly respectful of the party’s leaders, and seen as an intellectual. There were no fireworks during Gigaba’s reign.
Mbalula wanted to be seen as someone who did not defer to ANC leaders, imagining that he was reinventing Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu’s “tradition” of dissatisfaction with conservative leaders.
He was, at first, loyal to then president Thabo Mbeki. But early in 2005, he became chief cheerleader for Zuma. At the time, the so-called “coalition of the wounded” – the forces excluded by and mobilising against Mbeki – were beginning to call for Mbeki’s removal and for Zuma to replace him.
But Zuma was accused of having a corrupt relationship with Schabir Shaik, who was on trial. Mbalula jumped to Zuma’s defence, shooting from the hip.
Mbalula tried to personify a hot-headed rebel who has no fear, a trope the youth of SA have been susceptible to ever since the advent of the Black Consciousness movement, and perhaps even of the youth league itself. However, he became the caricature of a rebel. He attacked ANC leaders not for deviating from party principles, but because they obstructed his faction’s ascendancy.
He did this by dispensing with argument and rationality, resorting to ad hominem attacks, repulsive language and vitriol, eroding authority and decorum within the party.
In what was surely a turning point in ANC history, Mbalula stood firmly behind Zuma at his rape trial in March 2005.
Malema led the shock troops, hounding Zuma’s accuser, Fezekile Kuzwayo, who was forced into exile – probably a first in post-apartheid South Africa. It was one of the lowest points not only for the ANC, but for post-apartheid South Africa.
Mbalula broke with the ANC’s nonracialism when in 2007, he went to the University of KwaZulu-Natal and complained, incorrectly, that there were more Indians than black Africans on the campus. Formerly the University of Durban-Westville, the institution had been set aside for “Indians” by apartheid-era social engineers.
In his haste to appear to be an agent for higher education transformation, he used a June 1976 memorial lecture to describe the campus as “nothing but Bombay”. He was not disciplined or even taken to task by ANC leaders, least of all by Zuma, indicating that this form of racism was not unacceptable to the party.
He attacked ANC leaders and cabinet ministers. Gwede Mantashe was the object of his wrath simply because he coveted the position of secretary-general.
Mbalula cultivated people with money. His relationship to big business was suspect and he enjoyed the patronage – and single-malt whiskey – of his mentor, corrupt businessman Brett Kebble.
He opened the ANC up to the destructive influence of money and became a role model for corruption, setting a despicable example for the youth he led.
Mbalula also contributed to the erosion of democratic process in the league, marginalising pro-Mbeki groupings, especially in the Eastern Cape, where he closed anti-Zuma branches.
Increasingly authoritarian, he unconstitutionally postponed the league’s elections until after the ANC’s Polokwane conference. At Polokwane in 2007, Mbalula and Malema rallied to the cause of Zuma, who was elected ANC president at an elective conference noted for flouting ANC traditions of comradely behaviour. Dialogue was prohibited by Zuma supporters who refused to allow national chairman Mosiuoa Lekota to preside over the opening.
In his book A Simple Man, former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils writes the crowd was “a lynch mob baying for blood”. He says Zuma’s supporters, some recruited from the Inkatha Freedom Party, “fanned the flames of anger and disunity; encouraged disrespect and thuggish behaviour; tampered with the nomination of delegates at branch level; flooded the conference with instant recruits whose political understanding was negligible; allegedly bought the votes of delegates with cash and sought to settle old scores”.
With his candidate victorious, Mbalula revelled in being kingmaker. He was rewarded with a deputy ministerial post when Zuma became president.
When he finally allowed the youth league elective conference to take place in 2008, Mbalula backed Malema, who made shooting from the hip look like a peace process.
Malema’s followers continued the new tradition established at Polokwane, with one baring his buttocks at opponents he was unable to engage with.
Malema won the disputed election, as drunken delegates clashed over voting credentials.
Malema’s subsequent rebellion against authority was corrosive of party unity and discipline, but some senior leaders enjoyed his transgressive ideas, which they were too timid to express. But he went too far.
He defied ANC policies and recommended the Zimbabwean route to land redistribution; he called for regime change in Botswana and threw a BBC journalist out of a media briefing for pointing out – after he had castigated the Movement for Democratic Change for being based in Sandton – that he lived in Sandton.
He followed Mbalula’s example, wearing expensive watches and clothes. He became something of a tenderpreneur.
When the ANC eventually disciplined Malema, he was outraged, unable to come to terms with the disapproval he had brought on himself. He broke with Zuma, turned on him and was expelled from the ANC.
With Zuma secure in the presidency, Malema had done his job and was dispensable. He was thrown out but his style had infiltrated the ANC: its branches, its structures, even the national executive committee. And his role model, Mbalula, was ensconced in the ANC and the government, ready to replay shock and awe at every turn, but increasingly becoming a caricature of Malema and of himself.
This kind of behaviour was condemned only by ANC leaders who had been purged, and it became a pattern, reflecting a lack of respect for fellow members, dialogue and the resolution of conflicts, eroding party unity. It allowed factionalism to take root, and for factions to develop a visceral hatred for each other.
The various organisations under the umbrella of the ANC have been infected by the same virus.
The ANC Women’s League operates with the same intolerance of dissent as does the ANC Youth League, and installs only leaders and policies approved by Zuma and his puppet masters. The Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association is even more obviously a Zupta militia.
The youth league under Collen Maine has sunk into a school of corruption, with Maine reading out speeches on radical economic transformation written by white public relations consultants in London.
Youth league members follow fired finance minister Pravin Gordhan to disrupt meetings at which he speaks.
The Eastern Cape conference, where chairs were thrown by the losing Zuma faction to disrupt the process, was just one of many meetings that have ended in disarray. Many gatherings have been sabotaged, delayed or cancelled, with delegates refusing to accept each other’s credentials, disagreeing on methods of accreditation or generally refusing to deal with each other.
Dysfunctionality is deployed as a weapon. It remains to be seen if the ANC will hold its elective conference in mid-December and whether it will be properly convened.
The ANC has once again, 60 years later, become the ANC Youth League. In an adaptation of the judgment of a famous political economist on the second Bonaparte, the first time the league became the ANC, it was an authentic transformation.
This time, the party is heading for tragedy or farce – probably both.
Yunus Momoniat is a freelance writer