FROM TSOTSI TO CELEBRITY
Julius Malema was still wet behind the ears when he became caught up in the rah-rah of politics. His staunch support of the ANC knew no bounds and was influenced, in large part, by late political firebrand Peter Mokaba, who headed the youth league in 1991
APINT-SIZED activist, Julius Malema had just turned nine when he donned his marshal’s uniform for the first time. It was March, 1990. And it was a big day. His home township of Seshego, in Polokwane, was hosting a homecoming rally for the now late Elias Motsoaledi, the Limpopo man who had been released with the Rivonia Trialists a few months earlier.
Nelson Mandela had walked free in the meantime. South Africa was dizzy with expectation and Julius Malema was caught up in the midst of it all.
For more than a year he had been nipping at the heels of Lawrence Mapoulo, then a regional organiser of the ANC. So Lawrence decided to rope him in. He was expecting a record turnout at the Seshego stadium and he needed all the help he could get.
Julius was to help marshal the crowds. He was to be at the stadium at the crack of dawn. And he was to be decked out in full regalia.
He wore his old school clothes: a short-sleeved khaki shirt and matching khaki shorts.
Pinned to the epaulettes was an ANC badge, and pulled down over his unkempt afro hairstyle was a black beret, the signature cap of resistance.
The ANC had called him to duty. He was a comrade now, a big man in the making.
For Julius, that marked a point of no return. He would later become a member of Masupatsela, the socalled pioneers, the forerunner to the ANC Youth League, a unit that became a thing of the past post-1994.
“And there is nothing you can tell us about the ANC that we don’t already know,” he says.
Sixteen years on he is the president of the ANC Youth League, a new face to be reckoned with in South African public life and a figure that is slowly evolving from a political tsotsi into a political celebrity.
In order to become the master, the politician poses as the good servant and that’s precisely what Julius has done in the past 18 months. But whose servant, exactly, is a question that has arisen in many minds.
To many, he was the stalking horse for Jacob Zuma in his remarkable return to power. Today, he’s looked upon in many quarters as the stalking horse for the left, pushing a nationalist agenda that feeds the interests of many of his comrades in the ANC’s so-called broad church.
In the intervening period, Julius became a national comic who fed a media frenzy with a litany of bizarre and often ridiculous comments. The election campaign was in full swing and he was on a roll. He became the media’s new clown. He gave great mileage. He was only a puppet, after all.
“It didn’t bother me. It didn’t hurt me. It did nothing,” he says in hindsight. “The media can say what they want, but they are only showing themselves up. They showed they have got no power. Because though they wanted to harm me, what the media has never been able to do is harm my constituency.”
And that’s very true. When he took over the reigns of the Youth League in April of last year, membership stood at 420 000. On his watch, it has grown to 550 000, a whopping 30 percent increase in a very short period of time.
Malema comfortably takes credit for delivering a chunk of the young vote in the general election this year. And right now he’s itching for another victory, and is boldly heading a campaign for the nationalisation of the mines.
“I wasn’t around during the negotiations. But I’m around now,” he says. “And I’m contributing now.”
And hearing him talk in this way, it would seem that he has now found his feet and assumed the confidence to lead in his own right, no strings attached.
It’s a prospect that scares many folk, black and white, the thought of this bold and brave brat scaling the political ladder.
But to dismiss him as a future political leader is to ignore reality and deny a fact that is staring us in the face.
What’s also apparent is a shift in his political pronouncements of late. This time last year he was taunting the nation with his “kill for Zuma” comments, vacuous bullyboy tactics that had no rhyme or reason. Today his argument on nationalisation is near flawless, regardless of one’s take on socialism.
He is aiming for a negotiated ownership between the state and the private sector, ideally a 60:40 enterprise for all future licences. The private sector would not only bring financial resources to the deal, but critical expertise. And in turn, the government would use the revenue for the investment in social infrastructure.
Nationalisation won’t happen today, or the next day, he says, “but it will happen in our lifetime. The mines will be nationalised”.
Right now the league is working on a concept paper which he says the ANC’s Economic Transformation Committee has asked them to draft, in response to the campaign. It’s a paper they plan to table at the ANC’s National General Council next year, and if it doesn’t take off there, he says he will push it towards 2012, another clever stroke in his thinking. It is the year of the ANC centenary, a year that will be carefully recorded and in which he would ideally go down as the working class hero of the ANC.
Yet the Youth League is running a parallel campaign against Nedbank, because the financial institution chose to withdraw its sponsorship from Athletics South Africa in the wake of the Caster Semenya debacle. And the league’s thinking on this one couldn’t be more incoherent, even if they tried.
It was US politician Joe Moore who once said that a politician is a person who thinks twice before he says nothing. But on this one Julius Malema is not thinking at all and is saying an awful lot.
He says he wants to teach corporate SA a lesson, that “it’s time the capitalists sat up and listened to the working classes”. It’s a campaign that is unlikely to hurt Nedbank in any meaningful way. But who is Malema to take on a leading bank in this manner. And who is next? Pick n Pay? Woolworths? And to whose benefit is it to rake up tension in this way?
He is right in arguing the need for a South African identity in this still racially divided country. But is that project the sole preserve of a political party?
“It’s where we come from. It’s who we are,” he says.
Those last few words speak volumes about Malema. To many, he epitomises the late Peter Mokaba, the man who headed the league in 1991. The critical difference between Malema and Mokaba is that the former is faced with far more critical challenges today than Mokaba ever was. The latter belonged to the end of the struggle era and though that was no mean feat in itself, Malema is navigating the difficult teens of the new democracy in which some 70% of the youth, his constituency, are unemployed and grappling with a state of perpetual poverty and depravity, social and material.
Malema is adamant that government does not feature in his own plans.
“Maybe it’s my age talking, but I think I can contribute more in the ANC than I ever can in the government,” he said.
That’s also what Chris Hani said before he was assassinated. And what Kgalema Mothlanthe did in the new democracy – building up a powerful profile in Luthuli House until he entered Union Buildings.