In South Africa, upstart candidate treads a path radically different from Mandela's

Julius Malema, booted from the ruling ANC and running in tomorrow's election, is promoting radical changes and charging that the ANC has preserved apartheid's economic inequalities. And he's gaining an audience.

Mike Hutchings/Reuters
Julius Malema waved to his Economic Freedom Fighters party supporters in Tembisa township, east of Johannesburg, Feb. 22. South Africa goes to the polls May 7.

Twenty years ago, South Africa transitioned to a full, nonracial democracy and elected Nelson Mandela president. Now, on Wednesday, its citizens will go to the polls for the first vote of the post-Mandela era – a time that will test questions of race, justice, and resources. 

It is nearly certain that the African National Congress (ANC), led by President Jacob Zuma, will again win the vote. But the party made famous by Mr. Mandela, that inspired South Africans with its heroes and moral courage, now generates more ambivalence than enthusiasm and is seen as riddled with corruption and cronyism.

The real story is the rise of an upstart candidate who appears to share few of Mandela’s approaches and seems willing and possibly able to shake the nation off Mandela’s path: a savvy 33-year-old who sports a red beret and manages to project a revolutionary Che Guevara aura while also wearing $25,000 watches and flying around on private jets.

Julius Malema was the youth leader of the ruling ANC until he was kicked out two years ago. Since then, he has become one of the ANC’s most devastating critics and is channeling the growing rage of many black youths. He points to chasms between rich and poor in housing, jobs, and landownership; he advocates nationalizing the majority of the nation’s all-important mines. He says the ANC, the party of liberation, has simply preserved apartheid’s economic inequalities while lining its own pockets. 

At the end of April, Mr. Malema said the old ANC had died with Mandela and the new corrupt ANC was that of Mr. Zuma. And that sentiment does resonate here. 

In Marikana, a gritty town two hours outside Johannesburg whose platinum mine is political ground zero for Malema [see accompanying piece], and urban shantytowns like Soweto, Malema’s populist slogan – “Enough is enough” – is being used to great effect. He captures and reflects the grievances of poor youths who see no future in a country where 50 percent of the population is under 30 years old and 45 percent is under 25. He is starting to build a grass-roots movement by making politics seem very cool and exciting to them.

“When Mandela came in, we thought we were going to live in big houses like the whites and would be able to leave the mines. No way,” grimaces Shadrack, a miner in Marikana. 

‘We are voting for Malema’

“Look at this place,” Shadrack says, pointing to his humble neighborhood from a fly-infested front porch that serves as a common area for three families. “There are no streets, no electricity, no plumbing, one water tap for all the homes. The toilets [outside] are not emptied regularly. Twenty years is a long time not to have improved this. We are voting for Malema.” 

Malema’s proposals are far more radical than anything Mandela considered. Beyond moving immediately to nationalize 60 percent of the mines that produce South Africa’s most lucrative export, Malema promotes public and private land seizures and redistribution of wealth. His in-your-face, quick-fix solutions often sound as if they’ve been pulled right from the playbook of President Robert Mugabe in next-door Zimbabwe, someone Malema openly admires.

Malema has been far more effective than anyone imagined. His crowds are voluminous, and he garners constant media attention. Malema and his newly minted Economic Freedom Fighters party (the EFF logo is an upraised fist holding a spear on the map of Africa) is one of three main challengers for the presidency in 2014, along with Zuma of the ANC and Helen Zille of the Democratic Alliance.

Malema has stirred a mixture of controversy, amusement, and worry everywhere he goes. “The Malema phenomenon shows there is still room for populist politics in our democracy,” says Patricia de Lille, the mayor of Cape Town.

While many of his supporters adore him as a harbinger of overdue change, an almost messiah-like savior, many analysts warn that Malema’s ideas, if ever tried, will lead to racial violence and economic chaos and ruin.

“Let’s not treat the EFF as something to joke about,” one presidential candidate, Mamphela Ramphele, a former World Bank director, told the Monitor. “It represents a serious threat to our future. Instant gratification is Malema’s approach. Nationalization, confiscation of people’s property, confiscation of banks.... Malema knows that will bankrupt the country.”

Former President Frederik de Klerk argues that investor confidence and stability are needed for a robust economy. At a recent event in Cape Town, the Monitor asked Mr. De Klerk, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela, about the effect of a strong Malema vote in May.

De Klerk professed a lack of worry, stating that Malema would get only 5 to 6 percent of the vote. 

But what if he got more than 10 percent?

“That would be very dangerous,” De Klerk said.

Actually, no one knows how Malema will do. A veteran South African officeholder says that private polls found as many as 18 to 20 percent of those questioned prepared to support EFF. Those figures dropped to 8 to 9 percent, however, when the question was narrowed to registered voters.

Malema, whose single mother was a domestic worker, is both famous and infamous for speaking his mind to the point of incitement. He has called Zuma a “fool” who has betrayed blacks. He has said whites don’t really belong in Africa. Recently he asked supporters to attack tollbooths erected last year to collect road taxes, and when the ANC government refused to run campaign ads that included the violent request -- Malema said his party stalwart were ready to be arrested. 

He is equally strident about landownership. Speaking to students at a college in Durban in April, Malema said that land in South Africa must be returned to its “rightful owners” and that only then “we’ll have friendship,” adding that, “You can’t be my friend for as long as you are still illegally holding what belongs to me.”

Inside the ANC, where some wings – including that of Winnie Mandela – strongly support Malema, his political rise is most definitely not going unnoticed.

“He is riding on real issues that still deeply affect South Africans, like land and economic exclusion,” ANC deputy minister Obed Bapela told the Monitor. “People have waited 20 years and things do need to change. But we aren’t following Malema’s prescriptions. We will continue with a gradualist approach.”

The ANC has the best political “ground game” of any party. But analysts say the test will be whether it stays above 60 percent in the vote total – considered a “psychological threshold.” A score below 60 could bring upheaval in the ruling party and by extension the country that it largely runs. 

Public disillusionment this spring goes to the very top of the ANC – to Zuma. A furor erupted over Zuma’s use of nearly $20 million in taxpayer-financed renovations on his private home at Nkandla, including a swimming pool billed as firefighting equipment.

The Nkandla scandal, which a public prosecutor report described as “opulence on a grand scale,” has seemed to sum up the distance between ANC leaders and ordinary people; it explains why Zuma got booed at the Soweto stadium commemoration after Mandela’s death in early December.

“Public distrust is higher than at any time since 1994 [when Mandela was elected],” says David Lewis of Corruption Watch, a  nongovernmental organization in Johannesburg. “Nkandla was a breathtaking example of impunity.”

Malema builds for the future

Ms. Zille’s Democratic Alliance (DA), whose stronghold has been the Eastern Cape region, has been the traditional opponent to the ANC. It is often seen as a white or Afrikaner party, though it now fields articulate and popular black candidates like Mmusi Maimane in regions like Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg. 

The DA promotes what Zille calls “shared values, not shared ethnicity,” and stresses hard work, private enterprise, and “separation of party and state.” And it may do well. But the DA is unlikely to oust the ANC in the election.

The EFF can draw from unions, youths, those in public housing in disrepair, wavering ANC loyalists, and those who are unemployed, which according to official ANC figures stands at 24 percent.

But what’s important about Malema may not be 2014. Analysts say he’s not selling policies and solutions but style and persona, and that his interest is in building himself as a brand for the future. 

“Checking the polls is not his game,” says Dewa Mavhinga of Human Rights Watch. “He considers himself a force to be reckoned with in four to 10 years. He’s building a foundation.... He’s learning to harness anger.”

Concern for the future is serious enough for writer Richard Poplak of the magazine Daily Maverick to title his upcoming book on the 2014 race “Until Julius Comes,” a provocative title playing off fears that Malema’s demographic appeal is inevitable. 

But Malema might get blowback from his own finger-pointing. He has reportedly amassed $16 million on an ANC functionary salary and faces fraud charges. In April he was observed flying to his rallies in a costly helicopter while telling crowds he desperately needed donations.

Then there was the 20-mile workers’ march that Malema started. It ended in the swanky Sandton area of Johannesburg. Partway through, he was picked up by an air-conditioned car. Later a police escort whisked him to a private jet that flew him to the resort wedding of a billionaire friend’s daughter, where he was photographed in an expensive purple suit and matching purple shoes. He is not known for any kind of disciplined ideological purity. Some call him Comrade Bling.

Yet he is skilled in turning such contradictions to his advantage. He’s a great talker. When asked in TV interviews how he reconciles expensive tastes and being a champion of the poor, he says it is racist to imply blacks can’t be allowed to do well and own nice things. Many blacks describe being "lifted" at Malema's rallies out of themselves. 

As Malema’s rise becomes a major story however, some analysts are demanding a pause to reflect: This is South Africa. Since 1994, the nation has built 5 million new homes for its destitute; it has undergone a historic social transformation; it hosted (and won) the Rugby World Cup. It is not, like Rhodesia, mainly agricultural, but cosmopolitan.

South Africa, as far as wealth, infrastructure, and literacy are concerned, is the leading constitutional democracy in Africa. Unlike Nigeria, a petrostate, it has a first-class power grid and functioning institutions. It is a tourist mecca. It has a vibrant and free press. It is impossible to imagine it banning Twitter, as Turkey recently did. 

The nation has a modern justice system in which a national sports hero, Oscar Pistorius, is on trial for the alleged murder of his fashion model girlfriend, causing blacks to marvel that, as many say, it isn’t always “us” charged with crime. 

Malema could simply fade away

South Africa spends a lot on social services already, even if more may be needed. While Rwanda remembers 20 years since its genocide, South Africa is celebrating 20 years since full democracy. Citizens feel a certain exceptional quality about their state. 

So Malema’s rise to power is hardly secure as he rides powerful negative social and economic dynamics. A new ANC leader could change or renew the complexion of that party, analysts point out. And while Malema joined the ANC at age 9, he has never governed. A political success would mean he would need to do more than make rhetorical attacks, but would have to get involved in the effort to govern. He and his brand could simply fade away. 

Ms. Ramphele, part of the “black consciousness” movement that helped end apartheid, is not sanguine: “Malema stepped into an opportunity waiting to be taken. Serious studies show his plan is unimplementable. But he knows he is dealing with people who are not analytical.” 

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