/ 11 February 2022

Julius Malema: The firebrand who shapes SA’s discourse

Graphic Tl Tau Malema2 Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)

Julius Malema is the standout political figure of the decade in South Africa. More than anyone else, he has shaped and continues to shape the political contours of this country. 

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum and the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has defiantly and uncompromisingly occupied the political space. You cannot talk about South African politics without talking about Julius Sello Malema. 

Many had written him off as a spent force after his expulsion from the ANC in 2012, but he proved them wrong and  remains a more prominent figure on the South African political landscape than before. The EFF’s press briefings are watched because people want to hear what Malema is going to say, even if they disagree with his politics. 

Many people started watching the State of the Nation address (Sona) because, from 2014 onwards, the EFF provided some entertainment in the form of disruptive drama in parliament, holding former president Jacob Zuma to account on the money spent on the security upgrades at his homestead in Nkandla. 

Today, South Africans know about the  Pan-African Parliament because of the role the EFF plays in that parliament. Many of us watched the Judicial Service Commission interviews because Malema said controversial things during them. 

Malema is able to take on his former political home and hold its government accountable. 

The ANC Youth League continues to be in a rebuilding process since Malema’s expulsion and the subsequent disbandment of the 23rd national executive committee (NEC) of the league in 2013. Malema’s expulsion led to the precipitous collapse of the league and although there have been many attempts by the ANC NEC to revive it to its former glory, it has not recovered. 

Malema understands there cannot be a revolution without the people. Not many politicians are able to mobilise the masses and speak to their hearts. 

Under Malema’s leadership, the youth league was a militant and vibrant organisation. In 2010, it held its first and last national general council (NGC), as the ANC was similarly preparing for its NGC in Durban in 2010. 

Some say the ANCYL leadership during the era of Malema did not invest much on political education. The expulsion of Malema and the disbandment of the league is evidence enough that the ANC leadership wanted a voiceless, meek and weak youth wing. 

Under Malema’s charismatic leadership, the youth league’s membership ballooned to unprecedented numbers. He was able to play the twin role of championing the interests of young people and rallying them behind the banner of the ANC. Every member of the youth league was an organiser and under his leadership it was clear that he was able to organise young people, whatever the cause they were pursuing. 

Malema is the Peter Mokaba of our generation. They had the same character. (Mokaba was the president of the youth league when it relaunched after the ANC’s unbanning in 1990.)

Another former leader and firebrand in the mould of Malema is Potlako Leballo, the former youth league member who was a founder member of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, which was banned immediately after its formation in 1959. 

The resolutions of the 2011 congress of the ANCYL and the Programme of Action of 1948, which was adopted by the ANC in 1949, both show a radical and almost impatient call for immediate transformation. 

That is how the generation of President Nelson Mandela ran things and Malema has very much carried on this tradition. 

That generation got us political freedom. Malema and his collective saw their mission as that of radical economic transformation (which has nothing to do with the faction that currently goes under that name). 

Certain compromises were made by the ANC leadership when our democracy was negotiated. The youth league leadership under Malema reminded the ANC leadership that the postponed struggle had to continue. 

Most people do not understand the league’s true character. Malema and Mokaba both understood it, though, and that is why it made waves under their leadership. 

Within the Progressive Youth Alliance, composed of the tripartite alliance partners’ youth movements, the Congress of South African Students (Cosas) understands the character of the youth league. 

The youth league’s march in October 2011 for economic freedom showed Malema’s strength as an organiser. He sent a strong political statement to the ANC leadership with this event. By then, relations between him and the then-president of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, had already soured. 

Any ANCYL leader must expect at times to be summoned by the ANC leadership to explain themselves, because of the militancy of the youth league. Malema and Mokaba were at times summoned on a Monday by the ANC leadership to explain some of the remarks they had made in public, since all the leaders were at the party’s headquarters on that day. 

Things got to a head when Malema was suspended for five years after he was found guilty of provoking divisions within the ruling party and of bringing the organisation into disrepute.

His secretary general, the late Sindiso Magaqa, was given a one-year suspended sentence. Derek Hanekom chaired the ANC disciplinary committee at the time, while Cyril Ramaphosa was the national disciplinary committee of appeals chairperson. 

Malema was expelled by the disciplinary committee in February 2013. He tried to appeal the decision without success. He had to now try to have his matter heard by the delegates of the 53rd conference of the ANC, and he did that by writing a letter to the conference hoping it would be read to the delegates. At this point, he just wanted his membership of the ANC back. 

His letter was not presented to the plenary. The then-secretary general Gwede Mantashe indicated the letter arrived late. Was it really late or it was a deliberate effort to push Malema out of the ANC permanently? What was interesting is that the youth league was disbanded a month before the suspension of Magaqa was lifted. It is clear that the ANC leadership wanted to destroy the generation that led with Malema and kill its troublesome youth wing. 

Some like to say that it is cold outside for former ANC members, but Malema has been able to show over the years that there is life outside the ANC. Look no further than what he and others have achieved in establishing and building the EFF. 

Malema left with the ANCYL when he was expelled. The institution, logo and history remained, but its soul walked out of the party with Malema, because he had already captured the minds of the poor and the youth, in particular. 

Today, one cannot talk about South African politics without mentioning Julius Malema. 

He is in his own league. Even during his days as the president of the ANCYL he was popular, including across the African continent. Since his expulsion, the party’s youth league has failed to give political direction. 

Malema also had much influence with the youth leagues of other former liberation movements. This is something the ANC leadership will never admit. During the time of Malema other parties also had problems with their youth leaders. 

Malema had tremendous influence as the leader of the ANCYL and remains a force to be reckoned with in South African politics as the leader of the EFF. The question is whether he will be able to manage and sustain a growing mass-based democratic party, or whether the EFF will continue to be moulded in his image, akin to the leaders of one-party states we have witnessed in African politics post-independence.