South Africa's Zuma goes soft on Malema. Is he losing control of the ANC?

Days after threatening 'consequences' for misbehavior within the ruling African National Congress party, President Jacob Zuma now seems to be going soft on Julius Malema, the leader of the vaunted party's youth league.

By , Staff writer

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    South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, shown during the BRIC - IBAS summit at Itamaraty Palace in Brasília, April 15. Zuma seems to have gone soft on African National Congress Youth League leader Julius Malema.
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Is South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, the kind of man who can be pushed around?

Just days after rebuking Julius Malema, the outspoken leader of the ruling African National Congress’s Youth League, for dressing down a BBC journalist in racial terms, singing a racist protest song, and embracing the brutal land policies of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, President Zuma seems to have decided to let Mr. Malema off with a verbal warning.

Zuma’s call for “consequences” for misbehavior had raised expectations that perhaps Malema would be suspended for a time, or even expelled. But Zuma’s decision to be lenient is now being seen as a sign of weakness and loss of control of his own ruling party.

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“This decision is very significant, because after this, others will smell blood, and it will be Jacob Zuma’s blood that they smell,” says Aubrey Matshiqi, a former ANC member and now a political analyst for the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. “In a battle like this, someone is going to be weakened, and with resources diverted to this battle, someone is going to be damaged. Zuma is not as strong as he was at this time last year.”

Tough timing

There’s never a good time to have a bruising public battle for political power, but two months before hosting the World Cup soccer tournament – with an estimated 450,000 fans expected to attend – makes for lousy timing.

The problem is that the political divisions within the ANC -- from labor unionists to communists to free-market capitalists to black-power militants – have never been settled. Experts say that even a gifted conciliator like Zuma has been unable to paper over the deep divisions.

At a press conference this afternoon in Johannesburg, ANC Deputy Secretary-General Thandi Modise told reporters that there were no current charges placed against Malema, and if there were, such matters would not be discussed in front of the news media.

"A disciplinary committee will investigate and decide whether charges would be brought against Julius Malema, and if so, what charges," said Ms. Modise. "In this regard, we would like to restate that issues of discipline in the ANC belong to the structures of the ANC and are therefore not matters of the public or the media. ANC officials will discuss issues of discipline of all members internally and will not engage on internal matters with the media."

A public affair

That said, internal matters have a way of coming out into the open.

Last week, Zuma took the unusual step of using his weekly letter to the nation to castigate Malema, although not by name. “Matters relating to the conduct and statements of the ANC Youth League which are totally alien to the culture of the ANC have made it necessary for us to emphasize a few fundamental principles today,” Zuma wrote.

Speaking of Malema’s televised ejection of a BBC reporter, Jonah Fisher, from an ANC Youth League press conference, Zuma called it “regrettable and unacceptable, regardless of any alleged provocation on [Mr. Fisher's] part.”

Referring to Malema’s recent visit to Zimbabwe, and his public endorsement of President Mugabe over other members in a power-sharing government, Zuma said, “we cannot and will not side with any one of the parties to the exclusion of others.”

As for Malema’s defiance of both a court order and an ANC party directive not to sing a struggle-era song called “Kill the Boers,” Zuma’s letter practically growled: “Anyone who then goes against that statement is undermining the leadership authority of the ANC, and that cannot be accepted.”

Yet according to reports from ANC Youth League members who attended a disciplinary meeting for Malema, quoted by Reuters and the South African newspaper Business Day, these hard words are the only consequences Malema will have to face. A formal announcement is planned later today at an ANC press conference.

The opaque ANC

The ANC, of course, is a famously opaque organization.

During the struggle against apartheid rule, individual members rarely if ever spoke for the organization, in part because the ANC was banned from operating as a political party. Both for survival and out of extreme discipline, ANC members – even major figures like Nelson Mandela – rarely aired their differences in public.

But in the 15 years since the ANC became a party, a new generation has grown up into an ANC where the cohesiveness has shown signs of strain. When there are differences among allied parties over policies, labor union supporters for the Confederation of South African Trades Unions, comrades from the South African Communist Party, and activists for the ANC Youth League are more likely to call a press conference than to call the president.

Malema to Venezuela?

Illustrating his independence, just hours after his disciplinary hearing, Malema held a press conference of his own, announcing a planned trip to Venezuela to study its nationalization of mines.

Malema’s trip was approved by the ANC leadership, the ANC announced today.

In this sense, Malema is less of a rival to Zuma and more of a symptom of a larger problem within the ANC.

“What we’re seeing is a realignment of the forces inside the ANC,” says Mr. Matshiqi. “The people who put Zuma into power are now part of his opposition, because they find themselves at the periphery, on the margins, and there is some bitterness.”

Zuma could not remove Malema, Matshiqi says, because Zuma is just one of many power centers within the ANC. “Zuma was elected by a divided ANC, and it was a divided ANC that had to make a decision about Malema. This means that Malema won this round, and Zuma has learned a lesson, that no ANC leader is invincible.”

“This statement that Malema has a power base is not demonstrated by the facts,” says Steven Friedman, director of the Centre of the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg. “The working black people that I speak with respond to him with contempt. Young people mobilize for their own reasons. Malema is not mobilizing them.”

As for Zuma’s diminished power, Mr. Friedman says, “I’d be careful, two years before the next ANC elections to say that he’s finished, but he’s clearly diminished and weakened."

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