Hero to zero: How fickle are Malema’s friends?

Julius Malema made a name for himself as the outspoken, firebrand leader of the ANC Youth League, a “kingmaker” with the power to influence the direction of the country.

But analysts say that while lawyers argued for why the five-year suspension doled out to him by the ANC at the end of last year should be overturned, the body that launched his political career has quietly been making plans to go on without him.

The youth league’s top six officials were suspended late last year, following a high profile disciplinary hearing in which they were found guilty of sowing divisions within the party and bringing the party into disrepute.

The appeals hearing for the youth league leaders, held at Luthuli House, Johannesburg this week, continued under a hush on Tuesday. The league itself would not speak on the matter and after the hearing concluded on Tuesday evening, the ANC said only that its findings would be made public “in due course“.

The quiet scene on Sauer Street this week was a stark contrast to the raging mob that burned images of President Jacob Zuma, stoned police and passing cars, and set bins on fire last year in protest against the disciplinary hearing.

A lone supporter, a shackled Golden Miles Bhudu, held up a sign saying “Comrade Cyril, do the right thing, there is no case here”. Bhudu, a strident prisoners’ rights activist who has echoed Malema’s calls for economic freedom, said the party should have dropped the charges. “There were no charges. They were playing to the gallery, grandstanding, posturing,” he said. “There is a political conspiracy. Now there must be a political solution.”

It seemed a clear reminder of Malema’s changing fortunes and his waning public support. Political analyst Sipho Seepe said it could also be seen as a sign of contrition from the league. “[They] have to be seen to be behaving, to be willing to submit to the discipline of the party,” he said. “Any robust, flamboyant behaviour will be inconsistent with a sense of contrition.”

Smaller crowds
Allegations that Malema and his political allies have benefited from corruption in Limpopo, has also left Malema “heavily compromised”, said Seepe. “There’s a doubt about whether he’s a person you should support.”

But Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, said he questions idea that Malema has ever enjoyed public support. He pointed out that although the crowds that protested the disciplinary hearing last year may have appeared impressive, they were in fact much smaller than the crowds that have turned out to support protests organised by gay rights groups or NGOs like Equal Education.

Instead, he said, the supporters bussed in by the youth league last year were “politically connected” individuals. “[Now] it seems that these politically connected supporters are realising that this is a lost cause,” he said.

Aubrey Matshiqi, political analyst and researcher at the Helen Suzman Foundation, echoed this sentiment, saying he didn’t believe that public support for Malema, like that seen outside Luthuli House last year was of any consequence.

“The critical question is if [Malema] has support within the leadership of the ANC, particularly in the NEC,” he said. “If Malema has miscalculated his support within the NEC, then his political future is finished.”

Matshiqi said Malema was suffering an “image crisis”; he made the mistake of challenging some elements of the ANC leadership in a way that appeared to be an attack on the party itself. “In politics, perceptions matter. Whether its grounded in truth or not, it will inform political choices. Members of the ANC will act on what they perceive,” he said.

Divisions in the Youth League
Meanwhile, the youth league appears to be unravelling. Karima Brown, political commentator and South Africa editor of the Southern Africa Report, said that Malema’s failure to beat the charges against him has acted as a trigger for the divisions that have existed within the league for some time now.

In October last year, the youth league disbanded the entire provincial executive committee of its KwaZulu-Natal branch, claiming it had defined itself outside the resolutions of the youth league’s national executive congress.

Earlier this year, the Sunday Times claimed that a rift had formed between the suspended youth league leaders, with a “central committee” led by Malema attempting to sideline rivals Pule Mabe and Kenetswe Mosenogi.

Then on Sunday, the youth league’s Gauteng chairperson Lebogang Maile said the disciplinary process was affecting the league’s ability to focus on political issues and announced that the league would not hold demonstrations in support of its leaders ahead of the hearing.

“This gives an indication that the youth league leaders are already thinking of a league without Malema,” said Brown. “People are beginning to reposition themselves to take over. That’s why we’re not seeing crowds outside [Luthuli House].”

As Malema’s star wanes, those within the youth league are beginning to realise that supporting him may be politically risky. “People are beginning to rethink their support of Malema because their political ambitions are inside the ANC,” she said.

Malema’s chances
The youth league has assembled a crack team of legal experts to represent its leaders at the appeals hearing but their efforts may be in vain. Brown said it’s unlikely that the legal arguments being made by the league’s legal team would be successful. “The disciplinary process is a political one, not a legal one — it’s quasi-legal. It’s a last straw process to reign in those who act outside the ANC’s bounds,” she said.

Friedman agreed, saying the entire process has been misunderstood. “This is not a tribunal. It’s not a court case. It’s a political party deciding whether it wants a particular group of people to belong to the party or not,” he said.

Opinions on how the appeals committee will decide the matter is divided. Some say the best Malema could hope for is a reduction in his sentence, while others believe his departure is imminent.

This may not happen with a bang, as one would assume, but perhaps with a whimper. “Julius Malema is a useful vehicle for a particular faction of the ANC. If he goes, that faction will simply find someone else to do what he used to do,” said Friedman.

Matshiqi agreed. “The future of the ANC and the battle for Mangaung doesn’t necessarily involve [him]. A new face could launch new attacks on Zuma,” he said. “Sometimes we over-exaggerate the importance of Julius Malema.”

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