The Oppression U-turn

The African National Congress (ANC) has been thrown into turmoil by the controversial youth leader Julius Malema. explores the troubling consequences for South Africa and its white population

The history of the ANC up until the events of 1994 which put them in power is well-publicised. Mandela’s autobiography The Long Road to Freedom, written while in prison on Robben Island, has seen to that. However, what has happened after Mandela’s sweep into power has gone largely unnoticed. The euphoria accompanying his success has died, as ANC led governments fail to deal with South Africa’s problems. Fifteen years of power has seen both inequality and the rate of HIV infection increase.

This has left South Africa in a tenuous position. The extreme factions on both sides of the racial divide are sensing an opportunity. Zuma’s continuation of the moderate ‘conciliation at all costs’ is beginning to look weak. The man who looks set to exploit this is Julius Malema. He joined the ANC at the age of just nine, taking part in an illegal campaign to remove National Party posters, before rising to the position of chairman of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) in his home province, Limpopo, at the age of seventeen.

However, it wasn’t until 2009 that he was elected president of the ANC Youth League. Malema later admitted that the elections were characterised by “unbecoming conduct”; his time at COSAS too had been associated with dishonesty and incessant power grabbing. Since becoming leader of ANCYL Malema has been a controversial figure. He has had to be disciplined by his organisation’s mother party on two occasions. April 2010 saw him suffer a mere 10,000 Rand fine (£780) and a slap on the wrist. Kali Simba, an ANC member was outraged: “a fine is not a three weeks of political re-education. He has brought the party into disrepute”. Now he is back in front of the disciplinary committee. However this time, if found guilty of sowing divisions in the party, he could be suspended or expelled.

“Whites feel just as disadvantaged as blacks of a similar income, they are discriminated against in education and workplace

Zuma was once Malema’s mentor. “We are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma,” he told reporters in 2009. Times change and now Malema commands the faction containing Zuma’s strongest critics. All the familiar battlegrounds are being brought out, and not without good reason. According to the World Health Organisation HIV now affects 11.8% of the general South African population, and almost 30% of pregnant women. Zuma can by no means be exonerated of blame, alongside his infamous polygamy, he has also been slated for saying that showering after intercourse prevents AIDS. This coupled with endless papers discussing, for example, how a virus can become a syndrome has subverted minds away from the issue at hand – that of contraception and increased testing.

So he represents a new generation entering the political arena. But the political currency Malema has gained through criticism of Zuma’s more centrist policies is a concern. He even visited Mugabe’s Zanu PF. To the delight of the Black Nationalists he has advocated the expropriation of white-owned land without compensation. And here we see why this latest disciplinary meeting is so important: Malema’s expulsion could lead to South Africa’s disaffected Black youth crowding the streets in violent protest. His acquittal would leave him in the running to fulfil Zuma’s prediction that he will be South Africa’s future leader rather sooner than he had hoped.

This could drive South Africa back into the dark ages of Apartheid, but this time with Blacks at the tiller. Malema has all the rhetoric of an Africanist leader. He talks of Libya as proof of Neo-Imperialism and only last month he was found guilty of hate speech after singing Dubula I’bhunu (Shoot the Boer) at a rally. He seeks to polarise society, opinion has certainly parted in the aftermath of this stunt. Alexander Joe writes in his blog: “It makes it easier to encourage the destruction of people if you can portray them as not really human. I wonder how many whites have been killed to the echoes of that song.” Malema was found guilty, by an Afrikaner judge, of hate-crime; “this is a revelation that minorities continue to control our lives in every way,” wrote Sakant Chandan on his blog ‘The Sons of Malcolm X’, “even the songs we should sing.” These sort of fears on both sides of the racial divide, rational or not, are bringing the bitter issue of race to the foreground of South African politics.

The politics of race and nationalism have been brewing for some time. The elation of the Black majority on being able to vote their first Black president in brought a real sense of hope that life.

Education opportunities for Blacks remain poor, especially in cities where poorer Blacks are yet to move back from the Apartheid township communities. Policies designed to restore economic balance have merely served to enrage Whites. University entry is a particular sticking point – for example, Cape Town University requires exam results of 90% from White applicants, but only 60% from Blacks. It takes strong convictions to back this level of positive discrimination.

The recession has hit the poor hardest in South Africa and it has hit the young disproportionately. According to a Treasury discussion paper youth unemployment (under thirty years old) is at 42%, these are the core of Malema’s support. Although alive at the time of Mandela’s inauguration, they did not see the struggle – they feel little loyalty to the generation of political prisoners that now constitutes the ANC’s senior leadership. And why should they? Corruption and patronage are still rife – this month saw the announcement that 30bn Rand (£2.4bn) goes ‘missing’ from the South budget every year. This figure represents up to 20% of the national budget, an astonishing percentage. And this indeed speaks nothing of Mbeki’s placement of ANC supporters in key positions; this kind of sleaze is unlikely to go unchallenged for long.
And this is one of Malema’s trump cards. “He calls a spade a spade, no beating around the bush. He says what he thinks,” says Kris Reddy, a construction worker from Johannesburg. “Malema’s attack on Pandor [Minister for education] was completely justified. He doesn’t deserve to be on a fat salary while millions starve.” It doesn’t seem to matter that Malema has been embroiled in allegations of misconduct, frustration at the Black political class makes him a popular alternative. But his lack of education and his calculated controversy means that opposition is just as vehement. “He’s just embarrassing,” a check-in assistant told me as I passed through Cape Town airport, “he’s rude and has no respect for the senior members of his party.”

If nothing else, Malema certainly divides opinion. However, the rise of the Black right is only one side of the story. Policy which discriminates in favour of historically disadvantaged Blacks is drawing criticism from poor Whites. They feel just as disadvantaged as Blacks of a similar income, and yet they are discriminated against in education and the workplace.

The White minority stood shoulder to shoulder with the ANC in the 1990s, but this support was not rewarded as Mandela’s wish for power to be shared with the National Party was trampled down by the consolidation of a Black political elite (particularly true under the rule of Mbeki). This feeling of betrayal has played into the hands of hard-right political parties, which have existed under the separatist umbrella organization Afrikaner Volksfront (Afrikaner People’s Front). One of these parties, the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), like the Black right, is appealing above all to 18-30 year olds. Indeed, Facebook has become their main recruitment tool.

Rallies in the northern provinces are increasingly common. Reporters were present at a farmers rally in Ventersdorp, North West Province. One protester spoke to the BBC: “The blacks want everything. They’ve already got the country, what more do they want?” Comments such as this may seem extreme but with ANCYL gaining influence perhaps their fears are justified. “They don’t care about us – about the white guys – and that makes me very angry,” he complained. ‘Race hate lives on’ cried the BBC headline.

More widespread discontent is moving into white South African society. Emily, an international student here at York, lives in Pretoria. “Affirmative Action means my brother and sister can’t find jobs in South Africa,” she told me, “the policy has gone on long enough, Blacks have been pushed into jobs for twenty years. It hasn’t solved the problem and it creates resentment.” When I suggested that impoverished blacks ought to be prioritised she said “yes, the level of poverty is not ideal. But what doesn’t always make the news are the whilte squatters camps on the south coast. Zuma visited and promised to set up a charity for them but this is side-stepping the issue.” There is certainly a suggestion that black poverty is self-inflicted – a stereotype of laziness deeply rooted in South Africa’s past.

The major issue in much of African politics is that, unlike in England, voters do not think of themselves as part of a mobile economic group. South Africa is a little different as the Boers and the ‘Coloureds’ are significant minorities alongside the Black majority. Even without settler ‘tribes’ there are still discrepancies between Blacks: for example, the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (Zulu). The lack of tribal parties is easily traced to the anti-Apartheid movement – tribal differences couldn’t be allowed to get in the way of fighting a common (foreign) enemy. But what this means is that whoever commands the largest race wins the election, hence why parties look to merge with the ANC.

There is also the age-old African problem of the ‘feeding trough’. Throughout Africa, parties who gain power believe that their victory constitutes the go-ahead to raid Treasury accounts. Without strong leadership from someone, extreme factions (currently most credible being the Black Nationalists) are only going to gain more influence. With both Socialists and Nationalists under his roof, Zuma needs to tread on some toes to break the deadlock.

2 comments

  1. 4 Nov ’11 at 2:49 pm

    Johan Theron

    Who needs a government if they commit crimes as much as their citizens?

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  2. Thank you so much for writing this. In a time when our culture says we have to tread on egg shells with respect to race and racism, it’s great that someone can come out and criticise the ANC. In many respects they really are no better than the Apartheid government they replaced, I think the stats on entry to Cape Town university are particularly telling…

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