ANALYSIS: Despite assurances by his allies, there wasn't a big turnout for Malema in Limpopo. And, as Mbeki learnt, it is the real numbers that count.
With 600 people gathered near the magistrate's court in Limpopo, which later peaked at around 800, close ally of Julius Malema and fellow expelled ANC Youth League leader Sindiso Magaqa was asked whether he was disappointed by the turnout on Wednesday.
"I can't even think that journalists can lie in this manner," he told radio host Stephen Grootes. "That man is a professional liar. Liar, liar, liar. I can't even explain ... [there are] more than 5 000 people there."
But a close count of those demonstrating their support for Malema showed otherwise.
The previous night, at a vigil for Malema held on the outskirts of Polokwane, another close Malema ally, provincial Youth League leader Klaas Mabunda stood in a hall he claimed held 2 000 people even though the true number was below 500, and spoke of the many buses en route from the Eastern Cape and elsewhere, packed with supporters. Those, too, did not appear. Instead, the crowd was drawn almost exclusively from Limpopo, Malema's home turf.
Not that Malema lacked for high-profile supporters from provinces such as the Northern Cape and Gauteng, with leaders – but few of the rank-and-file – happy to publicly associate themselves with him and line up against President Jacob Zuma. Those leaders brought messages of solidarity and support from their regions, with the implication that young people around the country believe in Malema and his cause.
The national structures of the league too remain very publicly committed to Malema, to the point of risking the ire of its mother body again. The charismatic Malema may be embattled, but proceedings this week showed he does not lack for friends.
In 2007, just about 30km away from where Malema's supporters were rallying, Thabo Mbeki too was receiving encouraging news from trusted lieutenants as he faced an uprising within the ANC. Piecing together leaks and interviews after his defeat at the ANC's elective conference, it became clear that some regional heads were afraid to share the true sentiments of those they represented with the Mbeki camp, fearing they would be held responsible for not turning the tide. Others, including some quite senior administration officials, seemed to think a posture of confidence could sway those yet undecided. So, even as Mbeki approached being overthrown, his organisers predicted victory.
The parallel fails because Malema faces no measurable test of his support in the near future, not even at Mangaung, where voting will be driven by a chaotic set of loyalties, allegiances, and motives. Nor does he face a clear challenger as the voice of a disenchanted young South Africa; those who would or could take control of the youth league continue to keep their heads below the parapet. In part, some involved at a strategic level say, because it still seems impossible to wrest the league from Malema – based on his perceived popular support.
That perception may be tested at the end of November, when Malema is due to appear again in court on charges he says amount to outright political persecution. The call for a show of strength has already gone out. No doubt there will be more than one interested party taking note of the numbers – and the number plates – before making any decisions at Mangaung two weeks later.