Inside the Malema machine

As the Mail & Guardian arrives at Luthuli House at 3.40pm on Wednesday, late for an interview with ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, we are told to wait our turn to see “the president”.

There is already a queue outside his office. The patient line—ranged in groups in the outer office or wherever they can find a chair—includes former ANC spin doctor Carl Niehaus and the newly elected South African Football Association president, Kirsten Nematandani, and his entourage. Then there is the Progressive Youth Alliance, a fundraising group for a Caster Semenya gala dinner and the leadership of the National African Chamber of Commerce (Nafcoc).

The queue waits patiently, as petitioners at a royal court, for their turn inside Malema’s seventh-floor corner office with views over the city and an imposing portrait of Nelson Mandela on the wall facing the youth league president’s desk.

After about 45 minutes Malema, wearing a golf shirt and jeans, pitches up and asks us to accompany him to his office.

“I’m sorry to keep you waiting, my chief.
It has been a long day,” he says, smiling.

Malema’s cellphone keeps ringing throughout our interview as people try to secure a meeting with him. One of those who calls is the deputy minister of police, Fikile Mbalula, who is politely told by Malema to wait until he has worked his way through the queue outside.

In some parts of society Malema is seen as the ANC’s in-house court jester and a buffoon, but a closer look reveals him to be the party’s crown prince, who wields influence and power while others just stand by and watch. He is the one people go to when official structures have failed them or have not delivered the results they wanted.

Although Malema holds no official government position and is only an ad hoc member of the ANC’s powerful national working committee (NWC), he knows that when he talks, everyone—inside and outside the ANC—listens. The primary source of his power is the fact that he was elected by a critical constituency for the ANC—the youth.

A senior member of President Jacob Zuma’s inner circle describes Malema’s role thus. A year ago there was widespread concern in the party about voter apathy among the youth and how this would influence the ANC’s overwhelming majority at the ballot box. Concerns were rife that increasing unhappiness with bad service delivery was threatening the ANC’s authority and providing a breeding ground for anti-ANC sentiments. Then came Malema and, in one swoop, he captured the hearts and minds of these straying sheep with his frank comments and ­criticism.

“He is the only voice who is willing to stand up and say: ‘This is how we feel and what we want.’ People understand the anger in what he is saying,” says writer Jabu Ngwenya, author of I Ain’t Yo’ Bitch, a recently published novel about the experience of young people in South Africa.

“I admire him. He’s got the balls to stand up and speak his mind.”

ANC leaders have more questionable reasons for “supporting” him, claiming he holds some of them hostage.

“Many people in the NEC have baggage. He knows about everyone’s baggage and they know he knows,” says one NEC member who is also a government official.

Crucially, as a founding member of the campaign to elect Zuma as ANC president in 2007, Malema knows why certain leaders jumped on the Zuma campaign wagon.

Says the NEC member, dryly: “He knows their reasons were not always noble and ... he’ll use that power when he thinks he needs to.”

A former Limpopo youth league member, who has now defected to the Congress of the People, puts things even more bluntly: Malema will use blackmail to get what he wants.

“He gets to know a secret about a certain politician, especially about how they amassed wealth, and then he will use that against them when they differ.”

As a measure of how seriously he is taken within party structures, the ANC even established a group of leaders to give him guidance, though privately some of them say he refuses to listen.

“He receives correction, but it doesn’t really look like he’s changing the direction,” said one such mentor. “We have accepted that he is a problem child.”

Malema’s decision to close down Lembede Investments, the youth league’s investment arm that was fraught with allegations of corruption, gave the ANC hope that he would be a strong and responsible leader. But now the party leadership is “uncomfortable” about his behaviour and unsure of how to deal with it.

As one NEC member who is also in business remarks: “Closing Lembede was a good sign that the youth league [would] be a beacon of moral credibility. But now it seems to be going the other way.”

Under Malema the youth league campaigned vigorously for the sacking of Thabo Mbeki.

There is some truth in the assertion that Malema is used to saying things the ANC is not able to say. A week before the ANC NEC took a decision to relieve Mbeki of his duties, Malema “predicted” that Mbeki would be fired as president.­

But a senior Luthuli House official told the M&G that Malema “was given information” and then went out in public and spread the word.

Malema himself has admitted to being a decoy during the 2009 elections to distract DA leader Helen Zille while “Zuma was sprinting to the Union Buildings”.

Malema believes that as a youth leader he should be allowed latitude. “Maybe the problem is how we raise issues. But comrades should accept I can’t raise issues like ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe. I must put more fire on what I say so that people can feel the heat.”

Despite the fact that Malema evokes hate and derision from many South Africans, most ANC leaders see a bright future for him, even touting him as a possible contender for the ANC presidency some day.

“There is no reason why he cannot be president one day, if nothing major goes wrong. He comes from the movement and knows a lot about the ANC,” says one.

Zizi Kodwa, Zuma’s spokesperson and former youth league leader, concurs: “What I’m sure of is that he will mature with age, like the vintage wine of the Cape. We expect him to grow over time and, in the ANC, such growth is appreciated and rewarded.”

Made in the ANC
One weekday in the late 1990s, as schoolchildren went about their classroom business, a lone teenage boy stood at the corner of Landros Mare Street and Hospital Road in Polokwane, holding up a placard, writes Mmanaledi Mataboge. He was protesting against the late delivery of stationery at schools, corporal punishment and “ineffective” school principals. Within minutes, he was joined by hundreds of schoolchildren.

The boy was Julius Malema and his solitary protest, which gained such rapid momentum, signalled one of the ANC Youth League president’s precociously early steps on the road to crafting a career in politics.

The youth league’s secretary in Limpopo’s Capricorn region, Jacob Lebogo, grew up with Malema in Se-shego and was one of the classmates who joined Malema in his street-corner protest. He relishes retelling the story and remembers that many elders in the area were scandalised: “What is this child doing?” In hindsight the elders might rather have asked: “Who is this child?”

Malema (28), the firebrand youth leader often criticised for his controversial public statements, is a respected, even a feared, figure, within the ANC and its youth wing. Those who grew up with him or helped groom him into the leader that he is today describe him as a textbook product of the ANC, from a militant teenage hothead fired up in the dying days of the struggle against apartheid to the country’s most powerful youth leader. And, they say, he is still evolving.

“He has become a different person from the boy I initially met,” says one of his close comrades, Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale, who started working with Malema when the youth leader was elected national president of the Congress of South African Students (Cosas) in 2001.

Back then few politicians, never mind anyone else, took him seriously. Says Mathale: “We had known him before, but we dismissed him as just another school kid. He still had the militancy of high-school politics. Just like all of us, his head was hot.”

Malema was raised in the ANC’s nursery from the age of 10 when he joined Masupatsela, a pioneer movement of the party, the young members of which were both lectured on democracy and tasked to act as enforcers of boycotts. Says Lebogo: “He did not jump any step of learning in the organisation. He was trained in mobilising people and in being a marshal. He collected and pushed tyres that were burned during stayaways.”

Malema rose through the ranks to lead Cosas in the province and nationally and in 2003 he was elected provincial secretary of the youth league before ascending to the party presidency last year.

Among those who groomed him were former youth leaders: the late Peter Mokaba, the late Frans Mohlala, and Mathale. The Limpopo premier sees nothing unusual in Malema’s behaviour. “We were all fearless. That’s why Oliver Tambo called us the young lions. You do not sugarcoat things; a stone is
a stone.”

Malema’s boyhood passion for politics saw him attending the funeral of Chris Hani, the late SACP general secretary, in 1993 in Johannesburg, when he was just 12. Says Lebogo: “He sneaked on to an [ANC supporters’] bus [in Seshego] and the only time they realised he was on a bus was when he was hungry and came out.”

Malema’s image as a bully who shoots off ill-informed bullets in public is a little more complicated: according to his comrades, he consults as a matter of course, but sometimes can’t resist blurting out what he had wanted to say all along.

Mathale, one of Malema’s confidants, says Malema usually consults him on issues before raising them in formal meetings—though his advice is not always heeded. “When I see it is wrong I’ll tell him not even to bother raising it because I will not support it. But because he is difficult sometimes, he will go ahead and put the matter on the table for discussion, and when he loses, he comes back and says ‘I should have listened to you’.”

In public Malema refuses to back off from some of his wilder statements, but in private he is capable of regret. He might call Mathale after an outburst and tell him: “I have said something I should not have said. Do not be surprised when you hear about it.”

Still, Malema’s outbursts are not merely tolerated; several close commentators on Malema’s brand of politicking assume the tones of indulgent parents.

As one youth league NEC member who did not want to be named remarked that Malema should be allowed time to grow and make mistakes. “If you have a toddler who does not cause havoc in the house and break things, you should get worried. We all know that a child should explore.”

The advantage to the ANC of having a “fearless” youth leader such as Malema who can say what they think but would not themselves say publicly is broadly accepted. What shocks some sectors of the public—Malema’s fury about the absence of black Africans in the economic cluster, for example—can relieve ANC leaders of the responsibility of putting such issues on the table.

“But,” says one source, “when we go to an NEC meeting they will say: ‘You’ve got it right.’”

Malema’s unedited honesty can also make itself felt much closer to home. “If you gossip, you’re in trouble,” says one youth wing NEC member. “He’ll expose you in a meeting.”

Mathale believes Malema is still evolving into the mature leader many in the party believe he will become. “He can engage in any debate. That’s what makes him different from other young leaders ... and in five years the country will see a different Julius.”

Lebogo is equally confident about Malema’s future. “You don’t need to market Julius—everybody knows him.”



Matuma Letsoalo is a senior politics reporter at the Mail & Guardian. He joined the newspaper in 2003, focussing on politics and labour, and collaborated with the M&G's centre for investigations, amaBhungane, from time to time.In 2011, Matuma won the South African Journalist of the Year Award and was also the winner in the investigative journalism category in the same year.In 2004, he won the CNN African Journalist of the Year prize – the MKO Abiola Print Journalism Award. Matuma was also a joint category winner of the Mondi Shanduka SA Story of the year Award in 2008. In 2013, he was a finalist for Wits University's Taco Kuiper Award.
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