So what is going on with regard to the stability of the ANC and the plans evolved by Jacob Zuma’s backers to reinstall him as Leader at Mangaung? Under current circumstances it is extraordinarily difficult to tell. The quality and integrity of the South African press has fallen to its lowest level ever (which is saying something), the SABC is as supine an organ of state propaganda as it ever was under the apartheid regime, and meanwhile the ANC’s membership has been largely terrorised into silence, except for an endless spray of leaks whose legitimacy is uncertain. In any event all information is so massaged by the media that its validity is obscure.
But we can look, and we can speculate.
What is going on is usually viewed through the distorting lens of the passion of Julius Malema. While things are vastly more complicated than that, we can at least use this for a preliminary investigation. What happened to Malema, and why did it happen?
Whether Malema believed his radical rhetoric or not, it is clear that this rhetoric was aimed at accomplishing something. Very probably, he and the rest of the Youth League were simply kicking up a fuss in the hope of being given something to make them go away — for instance, one or more of the positions monopolised by the corporate toadies and SACP toads who enjoyed Zuma’s favours. Alternatively, having clamoured for the removal of Mbeki, possibly they wanted to show that they were doing this not simply out of spite and greed, but because they really wanted to see some left-oriented policy changes. Obviously this was not going to happen, so they had to be either slapped down or bought off.
It would probably have been natural for the corporate toadies to buy the Youth League off, although, given the growing ultra-right-wing neoliberalism prevalent in the corporate elite these days, this might have been frowned upon by their handlers in the business community. On the other hand, the SACP, with its Stalinist roots and the sadism and paranoia which goes with that, probably wished to see the Youth League and all who sailed with it destroyed utterly. In other words, Malema was endangering his position by taking this stand, and in doing so was also showing that he was one of the very few people in Zuma’s entourage with any guts — which naturally did his reputation no harm. Malema and the ANCYL then proceeded to attack the SACP where they were most vulnerable, endangering their credibility — which had the potential to weaken their usefulness for the neoliberal elite, since if nobody believed in the SACP any longer, then the SACP could no longer function as an ideological screen for neoliberalism. Hence, Malema’s attacks on the SACP raised the stakes in the conflict; it was no longer the casual brutality of the SACP which he was arousing, but its instinct for self-preservation, which has been at the heart of the party since its foundation.
This explains why Malema was demonised so thoroughly. The SACP’s direct attacks probably counted for little (their accusations of fascism were simply reminders that the Party has not developed any new ideological concepts since the 1930s). However, the universal malevolence of the media and the bought neoliberal intellectuals of the punditocracy probably generated its own momentum; Malema had to be destroyed because the leadership of the ANC, who always stagger along behind whatever they read in the corporate press, heard that this was the case. Naturally, in order to make Zuma look good, the task of destroying the head of the weakest single element within the ANC was inflated into a battle of giants, which in turn probably made Zuma more nervous and more inclined to listen to the maddened howls of the SACP leadership.
All this turned what should have been a minor spat into a massive conflict. Artfully, the media made it appear that any failure to destroy Malema would be fatal for Zuma. Naturally, Malema was calling for a change of leadership at Mangaung. His first call was for Mantashe to be removed, which was natural — Mantashe is the SACP man in charge of the ANC’s disciplinary affairs, and is therefore the man giving orders to Hanekom, the SACP man in charge of the ANC’s disciplinary committee. It was obvious that removing Mantashe would be a smack in the eye for the SACP, the Youth League’s main enemies, and would also make it much harder to set up kangaroo courts for the disciplining of the Youth League. It was also, however, obvious that the ANCYL had no real capacity to remove Mantashe by itself — only if the ANCYL had considerable support from elsewhere would it pose any threat to him. Almost certainly, what the Youth League was doing was pointing out that a) Mantashe was not acting in the interests of the ANC, but of his principal, the SACP, and b) Mantashe was actually harming the ANC by doing this, since the SACP’s interests differed from the ANC’s — the ANC would benefit from a more radical stance in government policy, whereas the SACP would benefit from the more conservative stance which Zuma represented and which the SACP was pushing for.
But in the end, this obliged Zuma to get behind Mantashe, since ultimately Zuma depended on the SACP to rig the provincial elections before Mangaung, as he had depended on them in the elections before Polokwane. In which case, the ANCYL had no reason to support Zuma, because he was not merely their enemy, but — objectively — the enemy of the ANC and of the Freedom Charter and of everything Left of the Democratic Alliance and the Anglo-American Corporation. The fact that the “left intellectuals” had almost all gathered themselves behind Zuma merely showed how far they had redefined the meaning of “left”. (Of course, this was another reason for attacking Malema so hysterically; he was inadvertently reminding them of what traitors they all were.)
It was, thus, inevitable for the situation to turn nasty for the ANCYL. The long-term suspension of its leadership was a natural way to get rid of them for a while, at least until after Mangaung. Which was fine, except that it transpired that there was some support for the ANCYL within the ANC. The sheer dishonesty of the proceedings against Malema, and the obvious way in which the SACP was manipulating the situation, meant that some people came out in support of Malema, while others, like Tokyo Sexwale and Matthews Phosa, pretended to support Malema in an attempt to recover some of their discarded constituencies, who were mostly sympathetic to Malema. They would not, of course, support him in any meaningful way, but the fact that so many ANC people were reluctant to parrot the extreme propaganda of the media and the SACP seems to have been troubling to both Zuma and the SACP, both of whom — as well as the corporate community — are terrified of actual public opinion because they cannot control it, and therefore label it corrupt and “populist”.
This, it seems, was the reason why Hanekom and his flunkeys went overboard and decided to expel Malema from the ANC. Of course it was the ultimate punishment, but it went against the apparent tactic of the people in the ANC’s leadership who had been managing the matter, and who seem to have been gradually intensifying the pressure on Malema while constantly dangling possibilities of avoiding punishment before him. By allowing him to focus his attention on the possibility of escaping the consequences of his actions — inevitable defeat and humiliation — they might have managed to control him and the ANCYL and the numerous people who were starting to see it as a much stronger force, and a more moral authority, than it actually was.
But it seems that the SACP, having helped turn Malema into a papier-mâché dragon, now wanted the credit for slaying it. This was a burned bridge too far, since it was not only obviously unfair, but also freed Malema from any obligations of restraint. Speedily, he and his allies threw their weight behind the notion that Zuma was out of control and dictatorial — exactly what they had accused Mbeki of in the past, but with considerably more evidence. Meanwhile, and possibly not by complete coincidence, the DA’s long-delayed attempt to gain the power to reopen the corruption case against Zuma made some tentative headway.
This could simply be a judge throwing weight he doesn’t really possess around. Alternatively, it could be the judiciary punishing Zuma for being very vaguely and mildly critical of them (since the judiciary are the strong right arm of the white ruling class, the white ruling class has been behaving like paranoid psychotics over the issue.) And, of course, it doesn’t mean that the charges are indeed going to be renewed. However, the mere opening of the possibility that this might happen — after the issue had been decisively squashed in lower court, displaying how completely the corporate-backed judiciary was behind Zuma at that stage — made it possible for the ANCYL to sanctimoniously (and completely correctly) praise the notion of Zuma facing charges as a moral and politically correct move.
This all leads up to the renewed suspension of Malema — first he was suspended, then he was expelled, then he was suspended again, raising jokes about just how many times you can guillotine somebody. This leads up to the ANC leadership’s decision to pretend to be united on the issue, with an ill-advised and poorly-planned press conference of the top echelon of the ANCYL. Not only was this an embarrassing failure, it made Malema seem more important than he really is; why else should the ANC’s leaders be hopping about like grasshoppers in his wake? They certainly didn’t do this when Holomisa was kicked out, for instance.
What seems to have happened is that the SACP, and some other members of the Zuma faction, have generated a crisis of legitimacy in the leadership of the ANC. This crisis was always nascent, because it was always obvious that Zuma and his pals were unfit to govern, as their performance in government shows. However, it was suppressed through purges, which got rid of potential strong critics while terrorising potential weak ones, and creating vacancies into which selfish and greedy supporters could be inserted. Thus the Zuma administration was able to simulate toughness and thus simulate unity. However, since it was always a simulation, there was always a danger that someone would try to see if it was false.
Malema’s fate has shown that uncritical support for Zuma does not provide immunity from purges. However, Malema was also able to survive the worst that Zuma and his friends could throw at him, at least for a while. So those who were disturbed by the obvious attempt to intimidate the party were heartened by the partial failure of the attempt. Meanwhile, the clumsiness of the whole affair indicated that Zuma and his friends were far less in control of events — far less competent — than they had pretended. It was also evident that there were still plenty of people who were mildly critical of Zuma, and it became gradually apparent that a portion at least of Zuma’s corporate backers were no longer protecting him. Thus, the road became clear for others to criticise Zuma at least in private, and to discover allies with whom they could work in order to remove him or undermine him.
It didn’t help that Zuma’s interventions in the provinces had become increasingly inept, partly because the SACP’s obsessive attempt to control the whole ANC at provincial level was overambitious and doomed. As a result, provincial opposition to Zuma kept bobbing up and having to be smacked down, with diminishing efficacy as 2011 wore into 2012. Eventually came the annoying and counterproductive government intervention in Limpopo, to punish the government for being critical of Zuma — a punishment which appears to have alienated the whole provincial civil service who do not seem to have been fooled into believing the claims of the corporate newspapers that the non-appearance of their paychecks was the Premier’s fault. So the disgruntled voters and the irritated ANC rank and file coalesced with grumpy provincial governments and freaked-out members of the NEC — and while all these groups would have existed anyway, the actions against Malema and the ANCYL served to provide a maypole around which to dance and sing anti-Zuma songs.
Does this mean anything, other than providing the anti-ANC media with a rod for the ANC’s back? This depends on how far the Zuma faction will be able to reassert control. However, it seems clear that the kind of unity by default on which Mbeki could rely has disappeared, and the unity imposed by tyranny is crumbling away as people recognise that this only functions when people are prepared to be tyrannised. Bribery is still available, but what if someone else offers bigger bribes — and worse, what if the person to whom the bribe is offered wonders whether the word of the person offering the bribe can be trusted? It seems obvious that Zuma’s core elite support base is dissipating, and in consequence he must confront the fact that without this elite he has no actual broad base of support — having systematically alienated it over the last few years. It also seems obvious that the dwindling SACP and the disintegrating COSATU are both unable to offer the simulated power-base that it could in 2006-7.
So the march towards Mangaung is not a march towards inevitable victory for Zuma. This is in contrast to Polokwane, when almost everybody who supported Zuma seems to have believed that everything was on their side. Back then Zuma’s support-base appeared monolithic, even though evil; now it appears shrinking, ineffectual and divided, like the ANC itself. All this is a product, very largely, of the Zuma cabal’s activities over the last six months, in pissing away their support through incompetent, brutal and self-destructive tactics.
Was this deliberate? Have some of Zuma’s allies, such as Mantashe, decided that the time is ripe to wreck the ANC through internecine fighting? No doubt many would be happy to do this in exchange for a reliable corporate sinecure. Alternatively, do some of Zuma’s supposed allies want to ease him out and have they been manipulating the SACP towards this end, weakening Zuma’s support-base and leading up to a chaotic National Conference which will end in a desperate search for an alternative to Zuma enabling them to step forward as saviour? Or is this simply the inevitable result of putting the biggest bloody fools in the Tripartite Alliance in charge and allowing them to smash everything within their reach like mean staggering drunks in a glassblower’s? This is probably the only question worth answering at this stage. If we had investigative journalists, one of them might look into this — but here as elsewhere, that is simply too much to ask for.