Julius Malema did something unusual on Saturday. The leader of the Youth League of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) apologized for something he had said. “We are a young people who will time and again commit mistakes and are prepared to learn from those mistakes,” he declared.
There were only three things wrong with his apology. One was the use of the ‘royal we’: it was Malema himself who said that the ANC should work to overthrow the government of neighbouring Botswana, not some anonymous group of youths. Secondly, he is not actually a youth: he is 30 years old. And thirdly, his remark was clearly premeditated and he is not really sorry for making it.
Julius Malema is increasingly seen as a likely future president of South Africa. President Jacob Zuma has said that he is a good leader who is “worthy of inheriting the ANC.” But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Zuma really likes Malema. Most of the ANC’s leaders dislike him, but they also fear him, for he has the enthusiastic support of millions of the poorest people in South Africa.
The ANC’s goal was to bring power and prosperity to South Africa’s black majority, but it has only half-succeeded. Seventeen years after it took power, one-third of the country’s people are still living on less than $2 a day and they are almost all black. So there is a promising political niche for somebody who articulates their anger and advocates radical solutions, and Malema has won the competition to fill that niche.
He won it by being more radical than anybody else. He’s the only prominent member of the ANC who has scolded the president for not being sufficiently supportive of Robert Mugabe, the octogenarian dictator who has reduced neighbouring Zimbabwe to penury.
He advocates nationalizing South Africa’s mining industry (by far the country’s biggest source of employment and revenue), and seizing the land of white farmers without compensation.
He insists on singing Shoot the Boer (the white farmer), the old apartheid-era “struggle” song, despite South Africa’s laws against hate speech and the fact that 1,489 white farmers actually have been murdered since the end of the apartheid regime in 1994.
So the poorest and most marginalized people in the country love Malema for his ferocity and recklessness, and that gives him enormous leverage within the party.
Only once before has the ANC tried to discipline him, in May 2010, when he was forced to make a public apology, fined and ordered to take anger management classes after he “brought the party into disrepute” by criticizing Zuma.
But he didn’t attend the anger management course, and before long he was back at it.
After his latest outburst, calling for regime change in Botswana, which he said was “a foot stool of imperialism, a security threat to Africa and always under constant puppetry of the United States,” ANC leaders called again for him to be disciplined.
But it didn’t happen. Malema made a semi-apology (“We should have known better”), but he did not abandon his plan to use ANC Youth League resources to support the opposition in Botswana.
Neither did he repudiate his call for the nationalization of the mines, and the ANC is so afraid of him that it has said that nationalization “requires further study” — even though the party leaders know that it would cause the collapse of the South African economy.
Does Malema understand that? Perhaps not: he only finished high school at the age of 21, with near-failing grades.
But since his whole political strategy requires him to be a raving extremist, he would probably still be arguing for the same measures even if he understood their consequences.
Perhaps the heavens would fall if he got power but so what? He would be in power and that’s what counts.
It must also be acknowledged that the people who would lose in a South Africa ruled by Malema are not the people who support him, for they have absolutely nothing to lose and there are a lot of them.
The ANC’s leaders know that and dare not take him on directly. They scheduled a meeting on Monday to discipline Malema for his most recent transgressions but then they lost their nerve and cancelled it.
So could this reckless, ruthless demagogue end up as the elected leader of South Africa?
Yes he could, and that would be the end of the brave experiment in tolerance and democracy that South Africa has been living through for the past two decades.
But it depends on two things: how well the economy is doing and how badly the ANC is doing in the opinion polls.
The two things are clearly linked: the better South Africa’s economy is, the more popular the ANC will be. An ANC that is not afraid of losing power in the next election would never give Malema a chance to take power.
But an ANC that foresees itself losing power in the next election — and after 17 continuous years in power, its popularity is eroding fast — might well turn to Malema in the hope of turning its political fortunes around. That’s unlikely to happen in the next general election in 2014 but by the one after that it could be a real possibility.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.