Story of Malema reflects sad state of South Africa


World View:He had to have a pad in the capital, he said, and so found a three-bed house in a nice area. He paid a year’s rent in advance. “I asked Pule [a political friend and business associate] and different comrades and asked them to help me pay the rent,” he told Irish journalist Fiona Forde. And they did.

Sound familiar? In Ireland we call that a “digout”, and tend to frown on such undeclared generosity to political figures. But it’s the way Julius Malema and all too many of his cronies in South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), president Jacob Zuma included, do the business of politics.

Malema’s personal fortune, built in barely eight years, has come from brokering (with kickbacks) lucrative state tenders in his impoverished northern state of Limpopo. His activities have given a new, most useful word to the political lexicon: “tenderpreneurial”.

In September he was charged with money laundering over contracts awarded to a company he largely owns, On-Point Engineering. Public protector Thuli Madonsela alleges that On-Point won a 51 million rand (€4.6 million) tender in 2009 despite the fact that it had “existed for approximately one month, had no employees, no assets or annual turnover”.

Fifteen other bids were disqualified. On-Point allegedly also received double payments from the Limpopo transport department and other service providers for doing the same job. Malema denies the claims.

The story of Malema, and all his contradictions, is told in a fascinating biography by Fiona Forde* who, despite falling for his charm and emotional openness, pulls no punches about his arrogance and corruption. Forde is at her best in her vivid accounts of her many encounters with Malema and the telling of his story, not least his business dealings. She is perhaps not so persuasive in her historical analysis, drawing parallels that jar slightly.

The story of the firebrand populist leader of the ANC Youth League, who was expelled from the party in April for bringing it into disrepute, is, sad to say, the story of much of South African politics today.

It’s a tale of the idealism and courage of the struggle against apartheid – Africa’s model democracy – turned into grubby fumbling in the till and personal self-enrichment alongside persisting poverty, inequality and violence. It is a tale of leaders – like some of our own not too long ago – who share a sense of ownership of the state they believe they created; of entitlement. And, ironically, it is the leading – or noisiest – “radical” critic of the government who epitomises best the descent of a once-great party.

Malema, once Zuma’s key ally, now his nemesis. Malema, convicted of hate speech, who sang the song of liberation Shoot the Boer, demands the expropriation of white farmers, and would tell whites they have no place in the new South Africa. Malema, who demands the nationalisation of mines and defends violence on the Marikana picket lines. Malema, who lauds Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe as a model.

Malema, the 30-year-old son of a domestic worker, brought up in a township in Limpopo, who ascended the regional ANC ladder to burst on to the national stage in 2008, a kingmaker for Zuma’s presidential ambitions, and maybe a contender for the party leadership.

Malema, a man of untold, mysterious wealth, a dandy who flaunts Breitling watches and designer-wear, who owns a new Merc and a luxury home . . . and who would lecture admiring student leaders in the University of Limpopo only last week on the danger to them of a lavish lifestyle while in office. That would create the impression they had “sold out”, he told a capacity crowd.

It’s called chutzpah, and it’s Julius Malema’s middle name. Yet Malema, although temporarily in the political wilderness following his expulsion from the party, remains a potent force. He represents something important and real: the unresolved, unfinished revolution 20 years after the overthrow of apartheid, the dream that still echoes in the teeming townships and among the landless millions. There is an enduring racial and class divide that cannot be wished away. “It’s a fault line. If you don’t address it, it will always hang like a sword over your head,” analyst William Gumede says. “South Africa is already quite an angry and vengeful society. This is the danger of inequality along racial lines. If people don’t perceive there’s a change . . . you have a danger of people expressing their resentment violently. If you don’t address it, there will always be another Malema.”

* An Inconvenient Youth: Julius Malema and the “New” ANC, Fiona Forde (Portobello Books)

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