Malema too is replaceable

Nhlanhla Mtaka says ANCYL president’s approach compounded negative perceptions of ANC.

The ANC national disciplinary committee’s decision last week to expel Julius Sello Malema has received mixed reaction from within and outside the ANC. Commentators have had a field day about what went wrong with the youth league president and what the political implications of his expulsion would be. There were two groups; those who argued that while they accepted that Malema was in the wrong; the decision to “fire” him was too harsh.

On the other hand, there were those who argued that Malema was actually responsible for his “downfall” because he was “intoxicated by past victories” and as a result assumed himself bigger than the ANC. For this group the decision to boot him out was welcome and long overdue.

The whole saga brings to mind the statement of Lev Davidovich Bronshtein (later known as Leon Trotsky) when he was expelled from Russia. Referring to the powerful and feared Joseph Stalin, he said: “The vengeance of history is more powerful than the most powerful Secretary General”. I would argue the current developments have nothing to do with Malema, though he and his supporters would want us to believe otherwise.

Yes, he is currently a big name in the organisation and yes there are those who are against him and probably want him out, but the fact is he’s just another replaceable actor in a large ANC soap opera. I would argue that that current developments are less about Malema, and more about the ANC’s transition from being, and operating a, a liberation movement, to becoming a modern political party; as well as trying to change the negative perception surrounding it.

It is therefore important to understand the ANC’s dilemma: the ANC goes to elections as a political party, but still considers itself a liberation movement, whose task is not yet finished – namely to transform society and provide people with clean water, electricity, decent housing, etc.

The transformation from a liberation movement will mean gradual but wholesale changes. These would include internal capacity-building for party politics and governance, and the development of intra-party democracy. This is because structures in many liberation movements are top-down. Often the executive authority rests with one person or a clique.

This might be successful for military operations, but in a political party the decision-making is decentralised and open to internal debate. In slowly moving from a liberation movement and introducing the ANC as a modern party, the current leadership wants to avoid former president Thabo Mbeki’s colossal mistake of moving alone. It wants to ensure that everyone is behind the move.

In his book Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC, author William Mervin Gumede argues that “Mbeki was determined to make the ANC into a modern African party with social democratic orientation…adapted to the demands of Africa and run efficiently along business lines”. However, according to Gumede: “Some changes in the ANC happened so quickly that many members were not even aware they were taking place or grasped their significance.” So the current processes, though taking too long for some, are deliberately designed to be slow, so as to ensure that everyone understands its significance.

The ANC is also fighting a negative perception regarding its brand and its leaders. In addition to tendencies of clientism, nepotism, corruption and the loss of institutional memory within the ANC and its alliance, factionalism has become institutionalised. Intellectual discussions and policy issues take a back seat to personality and sectorial issues.

Unfortunately for the ANC, Malema’s approach to politics perpetuated this negative perception, and as a result the party is desperate to flush him out. Surely, in its quest to change negative perceptions around its brand and leaders, the ANC will do everything and anything not only for elections, but for historical purposes.

Malema should accept that his role and character in the ANC soapie is the same as that of Bantu Holomisa, Sifiso Nkabinde and Thabo Mbeki. He too is replaceable. Finally, in the context of recent developments with Malema’s expulsion, the jury is still out as to whether what we’ve seen is the act of the most powerful group within the ANC or whether it’s just the beginning of the vengeance of history.


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