ANC’s Youth League members ran amok in Johannesburg, hurling bottles and stones at police @TheEconomist, 9/3/11 0:05
THE scenes were reminiscent of the violent demonstrations leading to the ousting of President Thabo Mbeki by Jacob Zuma as leader of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) in December 2006. On Tuesday thousands of members of the party’s Youth League ran amok in Johannesburg, hurling bottles and stones at police and journalists, brandishing sticks and burning T-shirts emblazoned with their president’s image. Only this time it was that of Mr Zuma, now battling his erstwhile supporter and protégé, Julius Malema, the Youth League’s powerful leader.
A few years ago, when Mr Zuma was struggling to climb the greasy pole to the top, Mr Malema proclaimed that he and his followers were ready to “kill” for him. Now, however, in the run-up to next year’s ANC “elective” conference when the entire party leadership comes up for re-election, the league appears to have changed its mind. It is part of a growing faction within the party that wishes to block Mr Zuma from serving a second term. Whoever is elected party leader is almost guaranteed to become president of the country in elections two years later.
Mr Malema has grown increasingly bold in his criticism of his former mentor, accusing him of lack of leadership, siding with Western “imperialists” in the Libyan conflict, and of neglecting the poor. He has hit out the polygamous president’s failure to set a good example in the fight against HIV/AIDS. He has charged him with abusing his position to allow friends and family to grow rich through government contracts. He has flown in the face of government policy by calling for the nationalisation of the mines and the expropriation of white-owned land without compensation. And, most provocatively, he has hinted that Mr Mbeki, a man Mr Malema used to despise, was a better president than his successor.
For a long time Mr Zuma refused to rein in the firebrand youth leader, anxious not to antagonise such an influential force. But in April last year, he decided enough was enough. Hauled before the party’s disciplinary committee and charged with undermining the president’s authority, Mr Malema was fined 10,000 rand ($1,400) and ordered to attend party political-education classes for three weeks and to undergo anger-management training. A mere slap on the wrist, the sentence was never enforced.
Now Mr Malema has been ordered to appear before the disciplinary committee again, this time charged (along with all five members of the Youth League’s leadership) with bringing the ANC into disrepute and with sowing divisions among party members. If found guilty, Mr Malema could be suspended or even expelled from the ANC, killing his hopes of taking over the party leadership one day. If, on the other hand, he is let off, Mr Zuma’s hopes of serving a second term could be dealt a fatal blow.
The disciplinary committee is unlikely to announce its decision in Mr Malema’s case until it has finished hearing the cases of the other youth leaders. Even then appeals may cause delays. This is the biggest test Mr Zuma has had to face since coming to power nearly two and a half years ago. The stakes are high. Some analysts are suggesting that, if Mr Malema is expelled, the battle could spill over into the streets, igniting violent nationwide protests among the millions of South Africa’s unemployed, unskilled, disaffected youth. Yesterday’s anarchy in Johannesburg, in support of Mr Malema, could be a foretaste of things to come.