Johannesburg, South Africa – It has been almost one month since the tragic killing of 34 mine workers in Marikana, a mining town in the North West province of South Africa.
Even as there is a public outcry for heads to roll in the aftermath of the deadly police firing, Marikana has turned into a seedy playground for personal vendettas and political ambition.
As the succession battle for leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) colours political life ahead of the ruling party’s national convention in Mangaung in December 2012, experts say that no one stands to gain as much from the political fracas emanating from Marikana than the expelled ANC Youth League Leader Julius Malema.
Most to gain
“He has been able to demonstrate the pact between the ANC and the mining industry [and] I would say he has gained the most from this incident,” Ralph Mathekga, a political columnist, told Al Jazeera.
Mathekga said that Malema demonstrated he is able to relate to the people on the ground and has been able to “occupy a space which one ordinarily expects to be claimed by the ANC as a political progressive party”.
Malema, the firebrand youth leader who was banned by the ANC in April 2012 for bringing disrepute to the party, has had a tumultuous relationship with the South African public. At once loved by the masses for his blunt narration of the country’s rampant inequality, he is also resented by the middle class for his threats to shift the country’s economic plateau by proposing to nationalise the country’s mines. Malema’s popularity, according to analysts, illuminates the working class’s hunger for representation in a society with gross inequality and lingering racial animosity.
Right after the shootings, Malema was seen at Marikana, lending workers an ear, generously paying for a memorial service and castigating the adminstration of President Jacob Zuma for mishandling the Marikana situation. “The democratic government has turned on its people,” Malema was quoted as telling striking miners at Marikana on August 18.
Marikana would however be the first stop on what Malema’s aides have termed, “The Mining Revolution”. At another scene of disenfranchised mining workers, addressing former employees of the Aurora mine who have gone unpaid since the company filed for bankruptcy, Malema urged workers to make the mines “ungovernable”. A few days later, addressing striking workers at a Gold Fields mine near Johannesburg, he urged workers to rise up and engage their leaders.
After Malema’s address to Gold Fields workers last week, one mineworker nodded her agreement, saying “Malema is right, he is absolutely right. Our bosses must listen now.”
As Malema continues his speaking tour at the mines, thousands of people hold on to his every word. Malema’s speeches have sent tongues wagging at Luthuli House – the headquarters of the ANC – and earned the ire of the National Union of Mineworkers, who has accused him of encouraging economic sabotage. After being ignored by local media since his expulsion from the ANC in April, Malema’s sudden resurgence and reprimand of the Zuma administration in Marikana has catapulted him once more into the limelight, painting him as a voice of the disenfranchised.
‘Godsend for him‘
Cape Town-based journalist Fiona Forde believes Malema has spotted an opportunity and is making the most of a lack of leadership across the board in the national government, the private sector and even the unions.
“Marikana is a Godsend for him, but it is also a wake-up call for the media and the public for writing him off following his expulsion from the ANC,” Forde said.
“He was always going to come back. He is a fighter, he is fearless, and he is an opportunist, on the back of which he is back in the front line now. He never really went away,” Forde, who is also the author of An Inconvenient Youth, a biography of Malema, told Al Jazeera.
“Malema is not the only one raising awareness of social inequity in this country, it’s just that he dresses them up in wild rhetoric and finds an audience.”
– Ebrahim Fakir, political analyst
Adam Habib, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg believes: “People need to ask themselves why his voice finds resonance with the people. And why is it that Malema is able to find an audience?”
“His ability to manipulate the crisis is a symptom of an increasingly polarised society,” Habib said.
Despite his rhetoric about inequality and siding with the masses, Malema’s lifestyle is a far cry from the lives of the country’s poor. The litany of corruption charges that are said to be looming against him in Limpopo province may yet have determine the firebrand’s future, but it is his ability to disconcert the powerful that has endeared him to the poor.
“Malema is not the only one raising awareness of social inequity in this country, it’s just that he dresses them up in wild rhetoric and finds an audience,” Ebrahim Fakir, a political analyst and manager of governance institutions and processes at the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa, told Al Jazeera. “He gets onto platforms and says things that sound radical but are in reality quite irresponsible.
Habib agrees.”People like to listen to him not because they trust him but his attraction is in the fact that he makes middle class people nervous,” the vice-chancellor said.
After the Marikana killings, opponents of President Jacob Zuma have been sharpening their political knives ahead of the ANC’s convention in December. Malema is hoping the convention will resurrect his political prospects.
“He is definitely hoping to get back to the ANC… outside of the party he does not stand a chance of getting any political office,” Mcebisi Ndletyana, an analyst, said. “Malema has always said that there has never been any merit to the cause against him, and that Zuma has had a vendetta against him.”
But all of this can change in Mangaung in December.
“There are no tangible gains at this point, but what it has done, is bought him time. So long as he remains relevant, anything can happen.”
– Ralph Mathekga, political columnist
“We cannot forget what happened in 2005 when [former president] Thabo Mbeki fired Zuma. The rank and filed spoke out and rejected the move and it marked the beginning of Zuma’s comeback. The ANC is moved by its branch members rather than leaders,” Forde said.
While Marikana has given Malema impetus to discredit Zuma in his bid for a re-entrance into the ranks of the ANC, Forde says that the deep-seated factionalism within the ANC makes predictions farcical at this point.
“The factionalism within the ANC makes the broader context very fluid rather than definitive, and therefore makes an accurate reading of his political future difficult,” Forde said.
But what Marikana did provide Malema was an opportunity to remain relevant.
“There are no tangible gains at this point, but what it has done, is bought him time. So long as he remains relevant, anything can happen,” Mathekga said.
And even if Malema’s anti-Zuma rhetoric might hearten Zuma’s opponents within the ANC, it most certainly does not mean he is trusted or liked, or indeed that Zuma’s successor would naturally favour him. In other words, he could assist the ousting of Zuma, and enhance his reputation as a kingmaker, but being outside the ANC means that he isn’t certain to benefit.
But at 31, Malema has age on his side.
“Even if he were to lay low for some years and come back at the age of 40, he would still be young enough to contemplate a political career and future,” Forde said.