What all this means is perhaps best understood by considering the alarming and spectacular impact of the Malema appeal hearing report this week.
It isn’t necessary to point out that Malema’s appeal was foreordained to lose. We know that the ANC is corrupt and administratively dysfunctional. We should not be surprised that all the charges under which he and his confreres of the ANC Youth League were found guilty were nonsenses which no healthy organisation would pursue for more than a few minutes. Nor should we be startled that the tribunals administering these trumped-up charges were packed with enemies of Malema, or that these enemies of Malema delivered judgements which were (besides the absurdity of their subject-matter) windy piffle. All this is to be expected under the Zuma administration.
No, the more interesting issue is, why was all this laborious effort undertaken? Why did Zuma and his co-conspirators go to such lengths to ensure that the ANC would look ludicrous and decaying?
It is often suggested that Zuma was afraid of Malema because the ANC Youth League wanted someone else as President of the ANC, namely Kgalema Motlanthe. It is true that Malema’s ANCYL wanted Motlanthe by the time 2011 rolled around, but this had not previously been the case. In 2007 and 2008, both Malema and the ANCYL had been among Zuma’s noisiest and most reliable supporters.
This did not change because Malema and the ANCYL suddenly had a change of heart and wanted to support the people who now had nothing to offer them because they were out of office. What happened, instead, was that Malema and the leadership of the ANCYL had been supporters of the nationalisation of the mining industry, which turned out to be a tremendously popular cause. At Polokwane in late 2007, both the SACP and COSATU promoted nationalisation, although if you read the fine print on their statements, both organisations were actually supporting nationalisation so long as nothing was actually nationalised. After Polokwane, COSATU stopped talking about nationalisation (despite the long-standing support for nationalisation among trade union members) and the SACP began talking against nationalisation, even though state control of the means of production is more or less the middle name of Communism.
What was going on here? It appears that the campaigners against Thabo Mbeki had been given a kind of temporary leave of absence from their responsibilities to the people funding the campaign against Thabo Mbeki, which was, of course, big business, the only people with that kind of money. Big business does not like nationalisation, but was prepared to allow its allies to use nationalisation as a tool to win support and thus get rid of Mbeki. Precisely because nationalisation was such a useful tool, it had to be discarded after Mbeki was removed. COSATU, which had union members who had memories, could not simply renounce nationalisation, so it simply fell silent on the subject. The SACP, whose tiny membership would do whatever it was told, and which was ironically totally dependent on corporate donations for its funding, was more active; it denounced nationalisation from the housetops.
The ANCYL’s statements had no fine print. Nor was the ANCYL particularly beholden to big business, even though some of its political allies were corporate cronies. On the contrary, the ANCYL needed to make a lot of noise in order to attract attention and support. The easiest thing in the world to do would be to carry on shouting about nationalisation, and this they did. While a couple of ANCYL members were in the ANC’s hundred-member National Executive Committee, they were outnumbered fifty to one by anti-nationalisation figures, so there was no way that their shouts could be turned into action. On the other hand, it was theoretically convenient for the ANC to have a few members who said things which the public would like to hear, because the ANC’s support after Zuma’s seizure of power was fragile, and was largely cemented by radical rhetoric. If there were no radicals to promote the rhetoric, gradually the public would lose interest in the rhetoric and the ANC’s support would dip. In short, Zuma’s long-term survival relied quite heavily on the ANCYL’s impotent noisemaking.
There were, however, problems — two problems. The bought men of the SACP were extremely vulnerable to the ANCYL’s radicalism. They could not, and dared not, promote their principles. The ANCYL could. The ANCYL also had a large membership and contact with the community, both of which the SACP lacked. If such things went on for a few years, the SACP would probably lose what little remained of its public support.
Meanwhile, the businessmen who had bought the SACP and the Zuma cabal were not politically sophisticated, as businessmen rarely are. They did not wish to know that an element of the ANC was promoting policies which were unappealing to them. For one thing, many foreign financiers would seize the opportunity to deny credit to South Africa, on the grounds that some impotent politicians were making anti-capitalist noises. Therefore, they went to the ANC’s, the SACP’s and COSATU’s leadership to demand that Malema be silenced. Initially nothing much was done, but the anti-Malema propaganda in the bought media was ramped up. Zuma probably does not wake up in the morning to receive his orders from the front page of the Star, but there is no doubt that the ANC leadership pays a lot of attention to the propaganda which the ruling class pumps out; lacking any real support, they need a lot of loving coverage from the media. By late 2009 it was turning against them. The SACP and the leadership of COSATU began roundly denouncing Malema, to the cheers of the press, while the SACP went one better and renounced nationalisation altogether.
And then, so did Zuma and his cronies, essentially saying that they felt that the public support that Malema and friends could deliver was less important than the financial support which big business could promise. Greed is a powerful weapon which almost always trumps principle, but in this case it also trumped political advantage. The electorate responded unfavourably to these attacks on Malema, but Zuma was happy to see a modest fall in support so long as the money continued rolling in — and where it was rolling in was to the pockets of his allies. He might not be gaining personal advantage from corporate support — but by attacking Malema he ensured that the politicians around him would remain dogs chained to the bank-accounts of big business.
Malema didn’t like this, but could not attack Zuma directly. Instead, he attacked the SACP, most particularly Gwede Mantashe, ANC Secretary-General, who, he argued, was not doing his job well (which was perfectly true), was abusing his position in order to get narrow advantages for the SACP (which was perfectly true) and, therefore, ought to be replaced at the next National Conference. Calling for Mantashe’s replacement was also a subtle hint that if Zuma ramped up attacks on the ANCYL, the ANCYL’s patience was not unlimited; every criticism which Malema applied to Mantashe applied equally to Zuma.
The media then defended Mantashe. This was a difficult thing to do, since Mantashe is an indefensible figure, apart from the fact that this was big business openly throwing its support behind the SACP — which ought to have meant that the SACP’s support was reduced to the members of the Politburo and their immediate families. (It’s entirely possible that this is the case; the SACP’s actual support-base is unknown, but they have not managed any mass activity in half a decade, despite immense press publicity.) Presumably big business also went to Zuma and his friends, perhaps via the corporate stooges Sexwale and Ramaphosa, or the corporate puppet Manuel. Anyway, Zuma came out in defense of Mantashe and demanded that the ANCYL shut up. Malema indignantly responded that this was worse censorship than Mbeki had ever imposed (which was perfectly true). Zuma and the SACP leaped on this and railroaded Malema into a kangaroo-court disciplinary hearing, which found Malema guilty of telling the truth about Zuma and imposed a suspended sentence of suspension. (Which kept us all in suspense, of course.)
What Malema and the ANCYL could have done was to acknowledge the smackdown and become submissive. Of course the media propaganda was not going away, which meant that they could have sustained themselves, arguing that they were merely retreating under fire — fire which showed that they were actually the good guys, or why else would the press have attacked them? But instead of taking this safe route which would have preserved their careers, they launched more extensive campaigns around “economic liberation”, endorsing the nationalisation of the land and the banking system and producing a much more detailed plan for the nationalisation of the mining system. In moving from rhetoric to serious action, they challenged the authority of Zuma himself — and indeed, while not once directly criticising Zuma, they gave it to be understood that in an election they would prefer someone else to run the ANC.
So, of course, they were removed, using fresh charges — this time, that they had criticised the Botswanan government and had promoted an African agenda. The former action was alleged to have brought the ANC into disrepute (though not one South African in a hundred could tell you what party rules Botswana or who its President is), the latter, to have divided the ANC (the Zuma administration claims to be united on the African agenda, though in its actions it opposes everything which ever serves African interests).
What this suggests is that the ANCYL was attacked because they were saying things which big business did not want to hear, even if the public did. In other words, the ANC would rather harm itself than annoy big business. This is hardly surprising, but it is worth pointing out, because periodically the ANC pretends otherwise. The SACP and COSATU, once again, threw their weight behind the campaigners of big business, doubtless in return for money and promises of directorships.
Meanwhile, the media had been running a long soap opera claiming that the ANC was plotting to destroy freedom of expression. At last, one might think, some evidence had come up substantiating this claim. The ANC clearly was not granting its members the right to express opinions which they clearly held and which were also, up until 2007, commonplace within the ANC, even if frowned upon by the ANC’s leaders because they, too, were heavily influenced by big business. In effect, a source of colourful rhetoric and occasionally interesting political ideas, potentially usable by the corporate media either for entertainment or bogey-manufacture, was being shut down.
Did the media protest? Of course not. Unanimously, the press proclaimed the wonder and glory of the ANC for successfully suppressing speech. Various public intellectuals — all of them working at institutions, or sitting in academic chairs, sponsored either directly by big business or indirectly, through “charitable foundations”, by big business — proclaimed the same, identifying the sins of Malema and his friends and declaring, effectively, that free speech is a wholly unnecessary thing. Which it is, in their eyes, when it is exercised by anyone whom they do not control or employ. That is why they continue to chant about the menace which the government poses to freedom of expression. It is much easier to pick people’s pockets when their attention is distracted by someone pointing into the distance and shouting “Thief, thief!”
Of course it does not matter. The ANCYL was not going to accomplish anything, even had it wished to. All the same, it is depressing to see that everybody in this little fiasco has been bought by big business, and meanwhile, the ANCYL are singled out by bought media, bought pundits and bought politicians — for being bought! It is a circle of lies which comes back to its beginning and has no value or meaning.
The real problem isn’t that the moneyed class buys its way to power. That has always been the case. The problem which will not go away is that, having bought its way to power, the moneyed class has no idea of what to do with that power, except to hang on to it by buying more.
But in the end, what is the price?