Nomalanga Mkhize, Business Day
THERE’s an African idiom that warns that if you let your child be a menace to the community, one day that same child will chase you around the house with your own sjambok. The idiom warns of the stark humiliation awaiting elders who leave the disciplining of their young so late that they develop incorrigible tendencies. One could argue that ever since his expulsion in 2012, Julius Malema has been chasing the African National Congress (ANC) all about the village with its own sjambok.
Last week’s tactical chaos by the opposition in Parliament was a thrashing for the great liberation movement that happened only because Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has adopted a no retreat, no surrender approach in their politics. The ANC has seemed stunned and surprised by this abrasive and confrontational contestation that has been played out in Parliament since the EFF asked President Jacob Zuma to #paybackthemoney.
Leaving aside the EFF as a political entity, let’s just focus on Malema and his "street-style" politics. What is it that Malema brings to the EFF that is so different from what happens daily in ANC branch meetings and provincial structures?
The ANC cannot be surprised by Malema’s style of politics because it has become the norm in its own grassroots and provincial structures, where the battle for power and access to state resources is at its most brutal. Political assassinations within the ANC have no need to target national or high-ranking leaders as political fiefdoms are built in the lower ranks.
This is because the real spoils of government are not at the top but at the bottom. That is to say, for those who want in on political opportunity, it is better to fight it out at the branch and provincial level because you are closer to your allies and much better able to outplay your opponents on the local terrain that is closer to your community, where your relationships are.
If you are, for argument’s sake, a new generation aspirant career politician, or perhaps a brazen tenderpreneurial politician, it makes sense to expend energy building up political alliances in councils, metros and provinces where one’s local branch credentials carry some weight. If you are not a struggle veteran whose reputation can get you deployed, you need to build up political capital and weight by other means.
It makes sense to fight it out at the branch level and that way secure influence over who gets into state administration. From there on, your political stature can determine who gets to do what business with the state and who gets employed by the municipality. Because the local and provincial government spheres have a fair bit of autonomy in budgetary administration and policy implementation, people can build their political fiefdoms at the local levels without ever really giving much concern about who runs national politics.
It makes sense then that Malema, while he was in the ANC Youth League, built up his power base in Limpopo and then strategically stayed out of Parliament while reportedly having a great deal of influence in how government business was conducted. All local ANC branches have these types of Machiavellian opportunists in them. What they cleverly figured out is that the power is not in the high ranks of national politics but in the locally rooted bruising power struggles of the branch.
The branch-level, bottom-up contestation ought to, of course, result in a robust democratic culture within the ANC. However, as has been apparent for a long time, the older ANC leadership is losing control over these brutal local contestations. The kind of leader that is emerging from this has learnt that hard and vulgar politicking is the way to go, just as Malema did. It is at this level that SA’s post-struggle political culture is being fashioned. What the EFF has brought into Parliament is what its members see in their own communities when ANC members fight things out.
With all of this in mind, the older generation of ANC leaders needs to look to the 2016 and 2019 elections with a great deal of trepidation.