In February 2012, after months of cajoling, threatening and disciplining, the ANC cut its ties with the volatile president of its youth league.
Julius Malema appealed but by April he had exhausted his options, and the party’s disciplinary appeal panel increased the sanction originally imposed to the maximum sentence — expulsion from the party for five years.
The young man who had been instrumental in the election of Jacob Zuma to the ANC presidency in 2007, and who had done more than most to clear Zuma’s path to the Union Buildings in 2009, was out in the cold.
In hindsight, it is now clear how baffling and sudden Malema’s falling-out with the party bosses was. He had faced not one but two disciplinary processes in the two years leading to the April 2012 expulsion. A laundry list of charges had been brought against him, ranging from his public support for then president of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe to his criticism of the Botswana government and, curiously, comparing Zuma (unfavourably) with his predecessor Thabo Mbeki.
To the outside observer, it would have seemed as though the party bosses were in search of any charge they could bring against him, as long as they could find him guilty of something and expel him.
After his expulsion, criminal charges related to corruption and tax evasion followed, and Malema found himself in the same position as the one he had worked so tirelessly to extricate Zuma from some years earlier: jobless, outside the ANC, isolated and facing years in court and a possible jail sentence.
Of course, Zuma, not least because of the efforts of Malema (who had once vowed to “kill for Zuma” if necessary) and others, had bounced back. Only four years after being fired from Mbeki’s government, Zuma was president of the republic.
Malema set about plotting his own comeback story. Having been excommunicated from the party, he would have to do it outside of the ANC.
Unlike Zuma, Malema did not have the advantage of being in the ANC, but he had other cards to play and, in the subsequent years, he has played them well.
He was young and energetic, he had a political base in the youth league and he had built up an identity as the country’s most radical political voice. His youth league had taken up the mantra of economic freedom and accelerated land reform.
When he finally gave up on remaining in the ruling party, he would use these platforms to construct an alternative political platform, which grew to be thorn in the side of the ANC.
Today his Economic Freedom Fighters party punches well above its weight in politics and policy debates, frequently appearing to lead the ANC rather than react to it (even if the extent of this is often overstated, not least by the EFF itself).
A remarkably similar political falling-out is playing out in the country’s biggest opposition party. The Democratic Alliance leadership is pulling out all the stops to oust senior member and Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille. Various allegations of corruption, maladministration and incompetence have been levelled against her.
The party has tried a vote of no confidence in the city council and an internal party disciplinary process, neither of which has so far yielded the outcome desired by DA bosses.
Curiously, they have now taken to relying on a radio interview that De Lille gave on the Eusebius McKaiser show on 702 as the most viable reason for stripping De Lille of her party membership and her position.
That move, should it finally succeed (it is now held in abeyance by a court judgment that temporarily restored De Lille to her post), would short-circuit both the disciplinary committee process and the need for a confidence vote in council.
Which raises the question: Did the party ever believe it had a case against the mayor with the rather serious governance allegations it made against her, or were they always just the most convenient way to get rid of her, and which have now been overtaken by her alleged transgression of a party constitutional clause?
Abandoning the opportunity to hold accountable a senior party figure and government official for alleged abuse of office because you have had the luck to find a quick-fire way of ousting her suggests that “getting rid” was always a goal more important than “holding accountable”, which strongly suggests the disciplinary committee and political processes were just means to a predetermined end. So, it is Malema all over again.
It may be interesting to speculate what De Lille’s next move will be when she and the party inevitably part ways and whether she has a Malema-like bounce-back in her future. But it is not the most important part of the story to consider.
The more it grows as a party of power rather than just an opposition party, the more likely the DA is to face the same problems that the ANC has. It is tempting in the political discourse (and this is especially the case in the DA and among its supporters) to see the problems of corruption and incompetence in the state as peculiar to the ANC and an inherent part of the ruling party’s DNA.
Among conservative white supporters of the DA in particular, the popular epithet used to refer to the country’s largest and oldest party is “cANCer”.
Of all the possibilities for derisive nomenclature one could use for the ANC, this is the most interesting. It reveals more than just the poor imagination of those who use it. It shows an inclination to see and characterise the shortcomings of ANC rule as a kind of pathology.
They are not. They are the inevitable outcomes of the exercise of state power in dysfunctional societies, particularly one characterised by gross inequality and entrenched injustice.
What the ruling party itself calls “the sins of incumbency” will result from DA rule as much as the ANC’s. That means the DA would face the same problems were it ever to take over the national government or one of the provinces and municipalities that don’t have the Western Cape’s inherited advantages.
One need not believe De Lille guilty of the things the party accuses her of to see that there will be many De Lilles in the DA’s future, if that future involves winning and holding power. Access to state power, state resources and the ability to shape events in business and other areas of influence — all these are great temptations for individuals and parties in office.
We could learn a lot about how a DA in power could handle this reality by watching them on De Lille. So far, the picture isn’t good.
Vukani Mde is a founder and partner of LEFTHOOK, a research and strategy consultancy