/ 1 August 2012

Malema still the popular kid on the block

Expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.
Expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.

Malema continues to hold political influence at home and abroad in spite of the controversial his expulsion from the league.

Along with former youth league spokesperson Floyd Shivambu, Malema embarked on a trip to the United Kingdom last week in the hopes of not only resurrecting his own political career, but popularising the league's call for radical economic transformation in South Africa.

In what can be construed as forming part of the current youth league's charm offensive, embarked on since Malema's expulsion, the young firebrand has cut the figure of an exemplary level-headed politician, held meetings with British investors and conducted interviews with several British media houses since his arrival.

Never one to back down from his contentious political views and vision for the economy, Malema has claimed he will "automatically" be reinstated as league president after President Jacob Zuma is replaced by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe at the ANC's elective conference this December in Mangaung.

During the trip, Malema has been the opposite of the hothead who mocked Zuma during his official state visit to the UK in 2010.

During his business meetings he has explained his ideas of nationalisation, and described all consultations as cordial.

"We have been engaging in a friendly manner. Actually they have been positive because once we take them through they actually begin to appreciate that what we have read in the papers and what we are saying to them are two different things," Malema said in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph.

While not commenting on the reasons behind Malema's visit, the youth league said Malema had a right to voice his opinion on the South African economy and the country's politics.

 "I don't believe we live in a society that silences ideas," Magdalene Moonsamy, league spokesperson told the Mail & Guardian.

"It is obvious the president of the youth league's opinions are in demand. Things like that are out of our control. We can't dictate who wants to speak to Julius Malema," she added.

Unofficially though, well-placed sources within the league claim the visit is indeed part of a strategy to demystify the youth organisation's political proposals.

"Very often the picture painted when the youth league's version of nationalisation is discussed is one of Cambodia during the era of the Khmer Rouge and year one. It is necessary to clarify the youth league's stance on this matter," the source, who demanded anonymity, told the M&G.

The source also said the trip was an attempt to "reinforce the values of the freedom charter".

"This trip is about spreading the message that the ANC is a broad church. When we first spoke about nationalisation it wasn't a factionalised issue that is used to win political battles on the road to Mangaung," they added.

According to insiders, while Malema is not busying himself with spreading the gospel of the youth league, he has taken time out to watch some South African olympians in action and has socialised with South African expats over a braai.

While it may be puzzling to see Malema casually giving interviews with international media, as he mostly shuns media attention at home, he is no stranger to journalists abroad.

His most publicised brush with British press came during his notorious expulsion of BBC journalist Johan Fisher during a press conference at Luthuli House, and he still grabs their attention.

"He still represents a lot of what he stood for while in office, namely a fierce critic of incumbent President Jacob Zuma and the self-appointed voice of the economically disenfranchised," said David Smith, Africa correspondent for the Guardian.

Smith said any colourful politician, regardless of their affiliation, is more interesting to write about than the run-of-the-mill, grey-suited variety.

"Any political figure that speaks of nationalisation and land expropriation without compensation will remain relevant," he said.

Despite Malema's apparent popularity overseas, questions are still being raised about who is funding the trip, with the youth league remaining tight-lipped on the matter.

The New Age reported that Malema's trip was funded by a group of businesspeople wanting to use his name to popularise their commercial dealing in the UK and Europe.

There have been suggestions that the trip is being bankrolled in some form by Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, who is currently in London for the Olympics.

It is well known that Malema is campaigning to have Mbalula replace current ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe at the Mangaung conference.

"We want to categorically state that neither the sports ministry nor Fikile Mbalula himself has anything to do with the funding Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu's trip to London," Mbalula's spokesperson, Paena Galane, told the M&G.

Galane said Mbalula was too busy to be concerned with what Malema or Shivambu were doing.

"We are here on official government business and have had absolutely no contact with either of them," he added.

There have been no indications as to how long trip will last and who else Malema is planning to see while in the UK.

Understandably, the excursion has raised the ire of the ANC and his movements are reportedly being monitored by the South African high commissioner Zola Skweyiya.

Officially though, the ruling party is not letting on to its frustration and Mantashe said Malema's stay in London is irrelevant to South African politics.

"He is no longer a member of the ANC," Mantashe told the M&G.