The grinding of teeth about President Jacob Zuma’s kid-glove handling of Julius Malema, the man who has stepped into his shoes as South Africa’s most controversial figure, Julius Malema, is almost audible.
Overnight it seems expectations of swift justice have been dashed and there are even emotional pronouncements that Zuma is finished if he fails to act.
In an ironic twist many South Africans are asking Zuma to save them from Malema, when only a year ago they were asking the ANC to save them from a Zuma presidency, a reality we now seem to have settled into comfortably.
Expectations for the censoring of Malema were raised by Zuma himself when he called a press conference two weeks ago in which he criticised Malema’s actions, even though he could not bring himself to call him by name. “The charges” Malema was meant to face were leaked last weekend.
Much of the throwing up of hands in disbelief has to do with the belief that JZ was the only credible authority who could act decisively on Malema. But the Mail & Guardian reported last week that the matter is not that clear-cut, that there are factions and interests that JZ has to consider before acting, and that he faces a possible backlash if he appears too hostile to Malema. I am also gradually coming around to the view that Zuma is just not the sort of leader who acts immediately and decisively.
Given his stint as part of the notorious Mbokodo, which, during struggle days treated ANC dissenters in exile harshly, even cruelly, one might have assumed that he was a hard man. Yet on the public stage in the past few years he has been anything but that.
It is quite clear that he believes his diverse coalition — the one that steamrollered former president Thabo Mbeki — should be kept intact. However, recent comments and posturing by Cosatu in particular suggest they are losing faith in him and are no longer confident that his presidency, while consultative, will be much different from Mbeki’s in policy and substance.
But if they feel betrayed, it is because of their own folly — in the single-minded moment of dethroning Mbeki many within their ranks asked the question: “What is the basis for our belief that Zuma will advance a left-wing agenda? That he is a simple man-of-the-people from Nkandla who believes in rural development?”
Recent comments and prevarication all tell the story of criss-crossing agendas, confusing alliances and new realignments emerging in the tripartite alliance.
My reading is that the mainstream in Cosatu and the South African Communist Party now regard ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe as their saviour to free them from the grasp of the tenderpreneurs represented by the likes of Malema and Siphiwe Nyanda, the minister of communications.
Their energy is now directed to rescuing Mantashe from a lynching by the Malema lobby which plans to oust him at the ANC national conference in 2012 and replace him with Fikile Mbalula.
Malema has played right into their hands by just being Malema, exhibiting the kind of behaviour that offends just decent human manners but directly violates ANC principles and conduct. To discipline Malema now presents an opportunity to kill off the kingmaker of the Mbalula group.
It is the leaders on the left who are now almost blackmailing Zuma either to act decisively or to accept that he has lost the moral authority and will be “finished” if he dithers. Their reasons for pushing for the disciplining of Malema are very different from those of ordinary South Africans who just want Malema to shut up or are offended by an opulent lifestyle seemingly funded by questionable tenders.
The Malema/Mbalula faction is also formidable and consists of arrogant street fighters who believe in their organisational skills and are convinced that Mantashe is as good as gone as the secretary general. Anyone who sends the following SMS to the president of the country must believe in his or her own immortality: “The British media called you a bimbo and now one of them [BBC journalist Jonah Fisher] met his match [in Malema], but you decide to go public and condemn Julius,” the SMS read.
It was sent by a prominent national executive committee member who has supported Zuma for a long time but is uneasy with the hardening of his attitude to Malema.
His group is hellbent on putting pressure on Zuma to intervene and override formal ANC disciplinary processes in order to protect Malema.
Zuma will take flak whichever direction he chooses. And we have seen enough of Zuma to know that he believes too much in consensus politics to stare down the barrel of any faction’s gun. Ultimately, it looks as if the matter will be deferred to the national executive committee, which will slap Malema on the wrist. Then all sides will claim victory and the rest of us will be left wondering what the hell happened.