Is there still space for Julius Malema in the ANC?
Despite his conviction that he will return to the ANC, analysts told the Mail & Guardian Online on Wednesday Malema's official political career has little hope of resuscitation.
In recent weeks Malema has held himself up as a defender of the workers, giving addresses to miners in the platinum belt and to disaffected soldiers in south Johannesburg, gaining ever more media attention.
On Tuesday, a day after being manhandled by police and prevented from making a speech to workers from Lonmin's Marikana mine, an incensed Malema threw caution to the wind and launched a blistering attack on President Jacob Zuma and prominent members of the ANC.
Malema reiterated his desire to return to the ANC at all costs, and at the same time called Zuma a dictator whose election as ANC president was a mistake he regretted having any part in. Now some say the firebrand youth leader might have gone too far.
Malema's hopes rest on the chance there will be a drastic change at Manguang and new leadership will invite him back into the ANC, but this appears to be becoming more unlikely.
Sheila Meintjes, a professor in the political studies department at Wits University, questioned Malema's strategy.
"He's trying his level best to keep himself in the public space [but] he hasn't yet fastened on a strategy that will work. I think he's really hoping Mangaung will turn the tables but that seems unlikely given what's happened at Cosatu this week," he said.
'In the political wilderness'
After much speculation about who would unseat the Congress of South African Trade Unions's top leadership, the trade union federation this week re-elected its top six unopposed.
"As someone who's been thrown out of the ANC, he's in the political wilderness.
What's he trying to achieve?" she asked.
Political analyst Karima Brown said Malema was trying to insert himself into broader body politics by positioning himself as a person who would listen to the views of the disgruntled.
"His agenda is to return to the ruling party," she said.
Malema's identity is clearly fixed to the ANC. He may travel around Gauteng disparaging the president, his ministers and the ANC leadership but he does so in ANC-branded clothing, and the policy positions he puts forward are those of the ANC.
"He knows that despite the discontent, the electoral outcome so far, up until most recent get elections, indicates convincing support for the ANC. He knows that's the political reality right now. Power is in the ANC, and that's where he needs to be," she said.
"It's a high strakes strategy with very questionable objectives. I doubt very much his plan can actually turn out," she said.
Clever and strategic
Brown said there was no guarantee that Malema would be able to get back into the ruling party, and that even if there was a change of leadership in the ANC at Mangaung, it would have to assess whether it can afford to have someone like Malema, who is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to forge his political agenda, in the party.
But Fiona Forde, author of the Malema biography An Inconvenient Youth, said his re-emergence at Marikana is both clever and strategic.
"On August 18 [the day after the massacre] he occupied a space that was leaderless. Twenty-four hours earlier when Jacob Zuma went to that hotspot, he went as far as the hospital and no further. Malema went right into [Marikana]," she said.
The miners' decision to call off the strike robbed Malema of a rich platform but this was not a serious problem as he would simply find another, she said.
Malema's power, she added, was that he has an easy way with the downtrodden.
"If he was in the ANC today, he is the guy they would have sent to talk the miners down, and he would have been very good at that," she said
"If I was a leader in South Africa I'd much rather prefer to have Malema with me than against me. It takes a very big leader to contain a person like Malema, and Zuma wasn't it," she said.
Forde said that previous presidents had had similar difficulties with earlier youth league leaders – Thabo Mbeki had to contend with a volatile Fikile Mbalula and Nelson Mandela had to contain a militant Peter Mokaba.
"That's big leadership, and it's the kind of leadership Zuma lacks. Is Kgalema [Motlanthe] that kind of leader? I don't know but he could be," she said.
It was on the outside that Malema would become more dangerous to the party, Forde added.
Meanwhile, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy Steven Friedman dismissed Malema's relevance to local politics.
"Whether he manages to get back into the ANC or not, he is a sideshow. He plays off a certain section of the media who think that he's newsworthy," said Friedman.
"People have been hyping up his role over the last few weeks, which in many ways is ridiculous."
Friedman pointed out that while some claimed that Malema had pulled of a "breathtaking political coup" by hijacking the memorial service of miners who had been killed at Marikana, days later, it was not his name but that of United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa that protesting miners chanted days later.
And when it came down to facilitating negotiations to end the crisis, it was to Bishop Jo Seoka that the miners turned, he pointed out. Seoka led the delegation from the South African Council of Churches, which played a key role in the negotiations between the workers and management at Lonmin.
Later, military bases were put on high alert after Malema announced that he would be addressing soldiers in Lenasia. But the crowd of about 40 disgruntled soldiers was almost outnumbered by the media scrum at the recreation centre where the meeting was held, Friedman said.
"What he's doing is mimicking the kind of strategies that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela used to use a few years ago," said Friedman. "You hear about some kind of tension and you appear, you make an impassioned speech and people cheer you, and journalists think you're popular and then you disappear."
Friedman said he would not be surprised, given her strong support of Malema, if she was advising him to use this strategy.
He pointed out that while the ploy got Madikezela-Mandela lots of attention, she never got a serious position within the ANC.