A Malema future: Looking disaster in the face

RW Johnson's analysis of the place of the ANCYL President in our politics, part II

The opponents of the ANCYL within the ANC are greatly handicapped by their unwillingness to spell out why Malema's demands would lead to disaster. The truth, of course, is that the state diamond mine, Alexkor (repeatedly shut for infractions of safety rules, loss-making and an irregular payer of wages) and Aurora mines, owned by a Zuma and a Mandela (shut for months, wages not paid, at least one worker suicide, the mine looted, and major problems over acid mine drainage) give a terrifying foretaste about what nationalised mines would be like.

Almost certainly, with the departure of most key managers and technicians, the mining sector as a whole would at best, limp along. Moreover, expropriation without compensation would put South Africa in breach of major treaty obligations, would cause a cessation of all foreign investment and the cutting off of credit. This would be accompanied by enormous capital flight. The nationalisation of the banks would see something similar occur right across the financial sector and there would be a large scale exodus of foreign and domestic capital and of skilled labour of every kind.

Similarly, expropriation of the land would quickly lead to a huge agricultural slump and to mass starvation. Moreover, all African experience suggests that the skilled managers, business people, technicians, commercial farmers and professionals who would exit the country under such circumstances would not return even if all these policies were later reversed, thus making recovery from the disaster effectively impossible.

The result would undoubtedly be the loss of many millions of jobs and a huge crash in asset values across every sector, leading to the mass immiseration of the country. Such phenomena would doubtless be accompanied by massively destructive social unrest, crime waves, xenophobic violence and other vicious side effects. This would destroy the social basis of democracy so that if the ANC was determined to remain in power it would probably have to rule by terror.

To this must be added two key arithmetical facts. In 2011 the country's trade deficit is estimated to be equal to 4.4% of GDP and its budget deficit to 5.3% of GDP[1]  The entire trade deficit, definitionally, and much of the budget deficit is funded by foreign capital inflows but under the circumstances described above these would not only cease but hugely reverse. There would have to be large and immediate cut-backs in imports - at exactly the same moment when agricultural collapse would mean the country needed to import almost all its food.

The state would very quickly run short of cash even to pay salaries, especially since it would now find it impossible to sell its bonds. The Rand would devalue massively, multiplying the value of the country's foreign debt and making default highly likely. Even before that the repayment of foreign loans would have become extremely problematic.

The scale of the disaster would be so huge that one could not rule out the possibility of the secession of parts of the country, civil war or just generalized chaos. Malema has often cited Zimbabwe as a viable model but the really decisive point to grasp is that Zimbabwe is an overwhelmingly rural country with a small urban sector so that when Mugabe collapsed commercial agriculture and much else in the private sector, millions of Zimbabweans were driven back into the rural subsistence sector where they starved or semi-starved. So the Zimbabwe model doesn't work, even in Zimbabwe.

But should Mugabeism be applied to South Africa - which is essentially what Malema wants - it would be inflicted on a fundamentally urban country. Flight back into the rural subsistence sector would not be a serious option for most. Instead, mass unemployment, hugely reduced incomes and hunger would be imposed on large urban populations, producing the complete collapse of the rule of law, democratic institutions and much else besides.

South Africa is a country of four or five major urban centres and if such a collapse occurred there, not much would be left. It would all end, doubtless, with the IMF and World Bank moving in to rescue the remnants of a burnt-out economy and imposing a neo-liberal agenda considerably more severe than anything which, for example, a DA government might implement. By then very little of the South African state would still be extant. South Africa would, of course, become one of the many African states begging white farmers to come and rescue their agriculture. In South Africa's case it would mean begging the white farmers to come back - the utter denouement of African nationalism.

The point to grasp is that ever since the discovery of gold and diamonds South Africa has depended on a regular infusion of foreign capital. With its large poverty-stricken population the country is incapable of generating the surplus capital needed for investment and therefore depends on attracting it from abroad. This is how the South African economy has worked for a hundred and thirty years and with time it has become more and more deeply integrated into an international political economy, on which its trade as well as its investment depends.

If this connection is cut the effect is much the same as cutting the supply of oxygen to a patient on life-support. When this happened briefly in the 1930s it was enough to produce the Fusion government and an abrupt change of economic policy. When it happened again after P.W. Botha's abortive "Rubicon" speech, it was enough to end apartheid. The lesson history teaches is that no political regime can long survive the results of a halt to inward investment from abroad. Yet Malema has hit on the very means to achieve not only this but also to collapse South Africa's trade, its currency and its reservoir of professional skills.

But the Youth League's ANC opponents cannot sketch out this disaster scenario without making it clear how completely the entire economy still rests upon expertise and capital provided by whites and on the maintenance of South Africa's position within a liberal international political economy.

This conflicts horribly with the received ANC narrative of how the liberation movement has improved and transformed the country in its own image. Only the National Union of Mineworkers, thoroughly alarmed at the job prospects of its members under nationalisation, has had the courage to note the industry's complete dependence on expert management, technical know-how and capital.

The Left caught in its own trap

So, the bulk of the ANC leadership, unable or unwilling to spell out these facts, has tended to fall back on portrayals of Malema and the ANCYL as being in hock to various BEE interests which wish to be bought out by the state. Not that this isn't true: many BEE holdings acquired in the boom years are now deep under water. Moreover, a company as prominent as Tokyo Sexwale's Mvelaphanda Holdings has been steadily selling off its assets because it trades at a large discount to real asset value - that is to say, the market assigns a large negative value to these assets on account of their being managed by Mvela.

Because of Malema's links to such concerns - and the ANCYL benefits from large business handouts of every kind, including even donations from Anglo-American - his enemies in the ANC have characterised his rhetoric as "right-wing demagogy". So while Malema massively outflanks the SACP and Cosatu on the left, they insist that they are more to the left than him. This competition to be more to the left is a permanent risk of a bidding war into oblivion. Already it is clear that Malema's grip on economic reality is extremely tenuous.

All these tensions and tendencies took a further giant step forward with Malema's presidential political report to the ANCYL on 16 June 2011. In this he openly attacked Cosatu and the SACP:

"What is supposed to be the vanguard of the working class in South Africa has degenerated into a lobby group in the ANC....concerned more on who becomes a Mayor, an MEC, Minister or Secretary of the ANC, than struggles of the working class and the poor."

So, he announced, the ANCYL would take over this role and would begin themselves to take over the roles of the SACP and Cosatu, organising the workers "in the factories, mines and farms". It would also take over the rule of Sanco (South African National Civics Organisation) which was similarly ineffective in its role as community organiser.

"The ANCYL should be the voice of the petrol attendants, waiters and waitresses, and tellers in retail chain stores because they do not have a voice. We should be the voice of the farmworkers, of garbage carriers, of street sweepers, of manufacturing workers, of the unemployed reserves of workers. We should be the voice of all people in informal settlements and under-developed areas."

This open attempt to usurp the role of  virtually all other ANC organisations - and effectively the ANC itself, for Malema made it clear that at the party's 2012 conference the ANCYL would challenge any leader who did not agree to the ANCYL programme - was an exceptionally bold move. Malema made his intentions clearer still by declaring that there must be greater representation of the youth in the ANC's leadership, pointing out that Walter Sisulu had been the party's Secretary-General at the age of 37. The SACP responded by using not merely terms like "right-wing demagogy" about Malema, but even "fascist". To go as far as openly calling another ANC faction fascist represents a new low within the alliance. Even the DA, after all, are merely termed neo-liberals but not fascists.

Both the SACP and Cosatu have good reason to feel threatened. The SACP has failed ever to breach the 100,000 member mark and is a vanguard party only in its own mind. Yet the PCF had over a million members at its height and the PCI two million while the Indonesian PKI, with three million members, showed what was possible for a Communist Party in a developing country.

So the SACP, being neither such a mass party or a vanguard, is now merely an ANC faction with a fine history, all of it behind it. It is itself a dinosaur, still using the hammer and sickle and other pre-Gorbachev symbols of a past which lives on now as a guttering candle only in Havana and Pyongang. A few more gusts of wind and it will be all alone. 

The Left's achievement: Building a new Zulu Monarchy

All that the factional activity of the SACP and Cosatu has done so far is to install Jacob Zuma as an ersatz Zulu king who lives in great style at Nkandla (close to the seat of the Zulu monarchy) where he has his extensive and ever-growing harem of wives (like the King). This seems to be his chief pre-occupation together, of course, with the furthering of his dynastic ambitions through the enrichment of his sons and various other family members, achieved via an opportiunistic alliance with the Gupta family - the chief vizier and courtiers at the Zuma court.

For all that the Left has achieved by its mighty assertion against Mbeki is to create what is essentially a second Zulu monarchy. And all that the SACP has achieved is that its leader, Blade Nzimande, is deeply embedded as another courtier - for he too is a Zulu - at this court. In return for which he receives the salary, perks, status and Mercedes of a waBenzi. Nzimande is so committed to his new place in the sun that he has even sought occasion to defend the role of the Guptas, the very personification of comprador capital. The Zuma regime, weirdly, closely resembles that of Sixpens, the (disastrous) populist black leader in Keppel-Jones's famous When Smuts Goes.[2]

The position of Cosatu is not much better. Its previous leaders, men like Cyril Ramaphosa, Jay Naidoo, Kgalema Montlanthe and Enoch Godongwana are all very rich men and the idea has now been deeply implanted that Cosatu is merely a conveyer belt to further enrichment. Increasingly, one notes, trade union demands fasten upon the procurement policies of organisations in which the workers are employed - and the key desire is to get one's hands on those. Its current leader, Zwelinzima Vavi, is an outspoken critic of the ANC's "predatory elite" but he is also ambitious for high ANC office and could easily be a well-padded Minister ere long. Jay Naidoo, his predecessor, is certainly a fat cat now.

Meanwhile, ever since 1994 Cosatu has boasted of having 2 million members; on closer examination the (claimed) figure is 1.8m. Which has done no better than stay steady in a workforce which has expanded a good deal since 1994. Within Cosatu the great post-1994 change is the decline of industrial unions (the much reduced mineworkers' union is the last big one left) and the rise of the white collar and professional unions which now dominate the confederation. Virtually all of these are in the public sector (municipal, civil service, educational, health, teaching etc) and they have changed the entire tone of the movement.

Whereas NUMSA metal-bashers or NUM mineworkers were solid blue collar who knew their jobs depended ultimately on the viability of the enterprises in which they worked, many of the white collar workers are upwardly aspirant wannabes, looking to the power of the state and politicians to give them what they want, and keenly aware of the meteoric rags-to-riches stories of the ANC politicos sprung from their midst. Under the ANC, and under the pressure of these wannabes, public sector employment has grown while, hardly coincidentally, private sector employment has shrunk. Whenever Vavi or Nzimande speak of how they represent "the working class" one should visualize at their back, not sweating sons of toil but these aspirant pen-pushers.

Malema, the hollow man

So both the SACP and Cosatu are certainly vulnerable, but nor is Malema as strong as he looks. The fact that Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu were catapulted to power via the ANCYL is not much of a predictor. Maurice Duverger, the French political scientist, in his famous book, Political Parties, distinguished between cadre parties (based essentially on an elite), mass parties which were branch-based and the Communist parties, based on workplace and homeplace cells.

In the 1950s the ANC was clearly, a cadre party and among its limited circle of militants a few white Communists could exercise extraordinary influence: Joe Slovo helped stage-manage Mandela's rise to head MK. Today, however, the ANC is a mass party, responsive to its innumerable branches. There are no more white Communists able to pull strings behind the scenes: the species is all but extinct. In any case, the SACP is against Malema. And there is no armed struggle, allowing one to by-pass normal ANC structures.

Secondly, the young unemployed may be a numerous and frustrated group but not only is it difficult to see how they can make their weight felt politically, but Malema is not rooted among or even popular amongst this group. Malema, with his tenderpreneur companies, Mercedes and 4x4s, expensive jewellery and bodyguards is already very much one of the haves, not the have-nots. Thirdly, there is at least one whole generation ahead of Malema in the ANC, demanding to have their day at the top and the organization is deeply conservative, unlikely to fold its tents before the Young Turks.

And again, Malema talks about organizing in the fields and the factories but this is just talk. Organizing workers is a very tough and time-consuming business and nothing in the ANCYL's history suggests it can do the job. Nobody at all has ever managed to organize many farmworkers and among the unemployed and squatter camp dwellers the record is even worse.

Malema is far more likely to be like the wolf in the story of the Three Little Pigs who said that he would "Huff and puff and blow your house down" but who could, of course, manage no such thing. Far more likely, the Youth League will be the plaything of its backers - rich men like Patrice Motsepe and Tokyo Sexwale - who will buy its support for particular initiatives or candidatures.


However, the disaggregation of the Polokwane coalition of ANCYL-SACP-Cosatu has already had one very profound effect. Some years ago Jeremy Cronin spoke worriedly about the approaching "Zanu-fication" of the ANC - a strange notion for the ANC had been hegemonic, authoritarian and corrupt in all the time that Cronin had been a member. Like so many others, he had not fully understood the nature of the party he had joined.

More important in the recent period is its "Zulu-fication". As noted elsewhere, the Zuma period has seen the rapid spawning of an interlocking network of Zulu "good 'ole boys" encompassing everything from the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, the Minister of Justice, the head of the SABC, the chief of police, the head of the SACP, the National Public Prosecutor, the Ministers of Home Affairs and State Security to the head of the NIA. Adjacent to and supportive of this is a network of Indians - the Guptas, the Shaiks, Pravin Gordhan, Vivian Reddy and sundry other Zuma funders.

Beyond even that there are Zuma's numerous contacts - for he is a genial man - reaching into the world of taxi bosses and other low life characters, for during the period when Zuma was up against the Mbeki state, he had to seek help wherever he could find it. This Zulu-centred network is an impressive construct, erected in record time, and it will not easily be got around, let alone overthrown. In a day-to-day sense Zuma can rely on this network and his opponents have nothing remotely comparable to it. Malema, a Northern Sotho, has no status in this Zulu world. He is not even an Nguni and therefore stands many places down in any line of succession.

Moreover, as Zuma has seen his Polokwane coalition fall to pieces, he has been driven increasingly to fall back on the Zulu world he knows best - and which loyally and enthusiastically supports him as the first Zulu ANC leader since Luthuli. This was immediately apparent in the 2009 elections when the ANC vote increased sharply in KwaZulu-Natal, slightly in Mpumalanga (where there are many more isiZulu-speakers) and fell everywhere else. This pattern was even more sharply apparent in the 2011 local elections. This left the ANC more heavily dependent on Zulu votes than it had ever been before.

Probably - though precise data is lacking - the party now again mirrors the situation it enjoyed under Luthuli, who had disproportionate Zulu support. There is a certain naturalness about this: the ANC was founded by a Zulu and Zulus have provided more ANC leaders than any other group. Indeed, one could go further. Had not Mandela been catapulted to power in what was essentially an intra-party coup, orchestrated by leading Communists, it is by no means clear that the leadership would have passed to a Xhosa.

The notion that Mangosuthu Buthelezi was the logical successor to Luthuli was strongly held by many Zulus and became, so to speak, a foundation myth of Inkatha. Now, however, that loyalist Zulu support has already largely crumbled towards Zuma and there is every reason to believe that will continue.

To understand the Zuma style it is best to look to the ANC's National General Council of 2010. In the run-up to the NGC Malema made great play of his demand for nationalisation and of the ANCYL wish to vote out Gwede Mantashe as Secretary-General, replacing him with the previous ANCYL leader, Fikile Mbalula. At the time Zuma seemed under considerable threat for he had drawn strong criticism from Cosatu. The SACP had also taken a notably independent line.

In general the feeling on the Left was one of disappointment and resentment that the Zuma government had proved no real advance upon the old Mbeki regime. It was by no means clear in advance how Zuma would come through this test. It was clear that if any one of the executive top six were struck down, it would be a major defeat for the leadership in general.

On the eve of the NGC Zuma held a large public meeting in Durban (where the NGC would be held) at which he stressed what large challenges the government faced and how it needed to concentrate on job creation, the alleviation of poverty and so on - and that it would therefore be a major and unnecessary distraction if a challenge was mounted against any of the leading group at the NGC.

Then in succession this message was repeated almost word for word by Senzo Mchunu (Secretary-General of the KZN ANC), by Zweli Mkhize (premier of KZN) and by Sidumo Dlamini (President of Cosatu). This last was surprising, given Cosatu's strongly critical attitude towards Zuma, until one realised that he, like all the others, was a Zulu backing a Zulu leader. The implication was clear enough.

When the NGC opened the really major change in its composition, due a nationwide membership drive, came in the relative standing of the various provincial federations. For Zuma's supporters had won at Polokwane in good part because of grass roots organisation which had seen a 50% membership increase and they (and Zuma) had clearly taken this lesson to heart. Across the country ANC membership had increased by 20.58% since the last NGC in 2007 but on that occasion the Eastern Cape had been by far the biggest provincial federation, providing 24.65% of the ANC's total membership. This time, despite a small increase in absolute numbers, it fell to 21.51% of the whole. But the real phenomenon was the 87.5% increase in ANC membership in KwaZulu-Natal, so that KZN went from 16.54% of the total membership in 2007 to 25.71% in 2010. Once one added in the considerable Zulu component in the Mpumalanga and Gauteng provincial federations, over a third of all delegates were now Zulus.

To put it mildly, this put Zuma and his allies in a strong position. Had things come to a vote the Zuma forces would have needed the support of only a quarter of the other delegates - and presidential patronage alone would easily have assured this. To put it another way, whoever wishes to dispossess Zuma or any other Zulu leader will have to overcome the opposition of South Africa's biggest and most cohesive ethnic group. This is never going to be easy.

Zuma was acutely conscious that there needed to be a sop for the Left. He was also aware that in rural Zululand, where he is in the process of mopping up the remains of the IFP, one of the critical demands is for more local clinics. If there was to be a speech on the subject of Health the logical speaker was the Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi - but he came from Limpopo province. So, instead, the job was handed to Zweli Mkhize, a Zulu, major Zuma ally and chair of the party's committee on health. Mkhize gave a rousing speech promising the introduction of a National Health Initiative - one of the Left's key shibboleths - with top priority to rural clinics.

In fact if one looked at the speech carefully it was easy to see that it was merely a summation of old statements on the subject, with no new information - but it served its purpose well. The ANCYL concentrated its efforts on the Economics Committee, rashly charged the platform when it failed to get its way and mounted no challenge at all to the leadership. Zuma had not said a single word against Malema but he had comprehensively out-manoeuvred and out-witted him.

This is the Zuma style. In public he lends a benign ear to Malema. It is rather like the colonel of the regiment who sees the young officers carried away, threatening duels against all and sundry, and also the sergeant-major who bullies the men and his lesser minions who bully them more. Heaven knows what horrors are committed amidst the bunk-beds of the Other Ranks after hours.

But the colonel knows that to seek confrontations with the young officers or the sergeant-major would be counter-productive. There are some truths from which he would rather avert his eyes. The regiment works as it does and as it always has. The key question is just whether it is fit for purpose when the hour strikes and will it obey the colonel's orders at that time. If so, much can be swept under the carpet. Thus far this strategy has worked.

But that is not to say that Malema's challenge is of no moment. Ever since Mbeki dismissed Zuma as deputy-president in mid-2005 the ANC has lived a life of factional strife. Everything suggests this will continue. The irony is that this has driven Zuma into ever greater reliance on the Zulu bloc vote. This is so formidable a weapon that it poses the question as to whether the ANC leadership will easily pass to a non-Zulu in future. Thus the ANC approaches its centenary with the ethnic politics its foundation was supposed to banish playing a more substantial role in the party's life than at any time since 1912.

R.W. Johnson

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit. This is the second in a two part series of articles - the first can be accessed here.

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[1]    The Economist, 18-24 June, 2011.

[2]    Arthur Keppel-Jones..When Smuts Goes. A History of South Africa from 1952 to 2010 - first published in 2015 (1947)