Transregional Center for Democratic Studies

Letter from Joburg, October 1, 2010

In South Africa: A young leader ignites passion, controversy

Do you want to experience the most spectacular spring ever? Come to Johannesburg in late September: you can smell it, you can see it, and you can almost hear it. The African jasmine is in bloom, the fragrance of its star-like flowers fills every street. You can see the buds of camellias in the parks, and hear people talking about the purple-blue flowers of the big jacaranda trees that are about to provide this vigorous city with a brief but tranquil blue tapestry.

At the same time one senses a nostalgia for the recent winter that brought an even greater joy to this city and to this country, with the remarkable spirit of unity that blossomed during the World Cup, when the city and the country across racial and class divides reveled in being the center of the soccer world, proud of being a world class host for a global media event.

But now the political scene is getting increasingly bitter, and for many, worrisome. It is not easy for a visitor to make sense of it, but last week’s Durban conference of the African National Congress, the 98-year-old liberation movement and ruling party, forced some issues to the surface, brought them into sharper focus, made them for the moment at least, less confusing.

Julius Malema visits Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe

Although the conference allowed the media only limited access to its proceedings, it became clear that over the 16 years since the dismantling of apartheid, its leading actor, the ANC, faces a startling challenge from its own children, the ANC Youth League. Its controversial leader, Julius Malema, who was only twelve when the negotiated settlement with the apartheid regime was reached, is now the most divisive figure in the party. Though he never went to college, his skillful use of both irreverent and vitriolic language (recently directed against the ANC and its allies), and his dubious activities (a trip to Zimbabwe last March to lend support to Robert Mugabe’s policies) made him a popular public figure for some, and a dangerous demagogue for others. There is no doubt that his rebellious, populist performance (demanding legislation for the state to expropriate private property on behalf of the people), though still formally within the ANC framework, contributes greatly to the fragmentation of the party. He himself, flamboyantly arrogant, demands a radical transformation of the ANC, with a greater presence of the younger generation in its leadership. Observing him one wonders how a high-school dropout could have arrived at such a powerful position. What makes people listen to him? President Jacob Zuma, who is also known for his populist rhetoric, presented himself at the Durban conference as a responsible leader and statesman. In fact many commentators talk about it as a struggle between the juniors, and the seniors, .

Though disciplined harshly by Zuma at the conference, Malema and his young guns, managed to put on the agenda , uninvited and unwelcomed by the ANC elders ‘ a push for the nationalization of mines. At the moment Zuma seems to be still in charge of the situation, as everybody took note of his have had enough, remark and his closing words at the conference on Friday (9/24): Anyone who crosses the line in the ANC will face the consequences, .

For a sympathetic outsider who is trying to make sense of it all, these are worrisome developments, and not only because they confirm the feeling that there seems to be a good climate in various parts of the world , from Global North to Global South , for effective demagoguery, the appeal to emotions and prejudices. What worries me is that here in South Africa they are combined with fairly advanced demands to establish control over the media, whose freedom has been seen as part of the problem. In fact a large part of the Durban conference was devoted to a discussion on setting up a special statutory body to hold media accountable for their reporting. And a majority of the delegates enthusiastically supported it.

For a sympathetic outsider who has herself lived in a system that presented itself as democratic centralism, the demands for party discipline are worrisome, even if they are meant to rein in political lunatics like Malema. Today at breakfast a friend told me about the Zulu concept of hlonipha that is deeply ingrained in South African culture. It denotes respect, especially respect for the elders to ensure dignity and stability at home. Young people should not criticize their elders, no matter how many wives they have or how many lucrative positions they hold. And they should not criticize the Party.

As somebody who cares about the ways in which local cultural paradigms and local knowledge are taken into account and engaged in strengthening and legitimizing political practices in new democracies, I do worry. I worry that the culturally embedded ethos of hlonipha may exclude debate, dialogue, and a free media, while supporting the newer, imported, and deeply anti-democratic principle of democratic centralism and media censorship announced in Zuma’s introduction of revolutionary discipline, .


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Lala Pop, Program Manager,
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