A role model Malema should have heeded
Even rabble-rousing Peter Mokaba knew where to draw the line, writes S'thembiso Msomi
MILITANT youths were firing shots in the air from all directions, putting the lives of thousands of mourners at risk.
Marshalls and local leaders tried in vain to persuade the gun-toting youngsters to stop.
Senior ANC leaders needed to intervene fast if they were to prevent the mass funeral of the 30 people killed during an attack on Tembisa township by Inkatha Freedom Party vigilantes from ending in another bloody tragedy.
And no leader was better suited to this role than Peter Mokaba, the then president of the ANC Youth League. His fondness for militant rhetoric, at a time when most ANC leaders were talking peace with the apartheid government, made Mokaba highly popular among radical youths.
Tembisa was no exception, and there was no doubt among ANC leaders at the funeral that Mokaba needed only to utter a few words for the anarchy to stop.
But, then, typical of Mokaba in front of a large crowd, he got carried away.
"Comrades", he shouted, "don't waste your bullets. Direct them against De Klerk!"
It worked. The guns fell silent and were replaced with loud cheers from the crowd.
But the other leaders cringed, fearful of the political storm that was to follow.
It was late 1993, and the then ANC president, Nelson Mandela, was leading delicate negotiations with the then state president and National Party leader, FW de Klerk, for a nonracial and democratic South Africa.
And now one of the most influential personalities in Mandela's party was encouraging impressionable youths to "direct" their bullets against his negotiating partner?
Mandela was furious and demanded action against Mokaba.
Although Mokaba remained defiant in public, steadfastly defending his controversial remarks, those who worked closely with him in the youth league said he was so fearful of Mandela's retaliation that he actually stayed away from Shell House, the ANC headquarters, for a number of days.
But Mandela persisted in his demand that action be taken, and the man current youth league president Julius Malema fashions his leadership style on went out of his way to avoid being hauled before the ANC's disciplinary committee.
He sent a group of senior youth league leaders to negotiate a deal with the ANC that would make Mandela happy while saving Mokaba's standing in the eyes of his radical supporters.
Mokaba eventually apologised to the ANC leader, and a joint statement by the ANC and the youth league was issued.
Herein lies the major difference between Mokaba and Malema, the firebrand youth league leader who is now facing expulsion from the ruling party.
While both shot to national prominence through recklessly militant statements, Mokaba often knew where to draw the line and avoid being kicked out of the ANC.
Popular as he was among township and rural youths, Mokaba - a former Robben Island prisoner - always knew that, without the party backing, his popularity would evaporate.
Malema, on the other hand, seems to have believed himself to be invincible - taunting President Jacob Zuma and other ANC leaders even when it was clear to everyone that they had become so irritated with him that they were looking for any excuse to suspend or expel him from the party.
Malema has so far kept mum about his next move following the ANC national disciplinary committee's decision to expel him from the party and strip him of his youth league title this week.
Although the youth league's next step will be decided at a special national executive committee meeting this afternoon, it is safe to expect that he will be appealing against the sentence.
But even if the Cyril Ramaphosa-led ANC national disciplinary committee of appeal strikes down the expulsion sentence, Malema looks set to be suspended from the ANC for a lengthy period.
Yet, had he closely followed how Mokaba and other past youth league rabble-rousers carefully played the populist game, Malema would not be in the kind of trouble in which he now finds himself.
At its national conference in 2004, the youth league took a controversial decision to support Zuma, who was then the ANC's deputy president, as a successor to then party president Thabo Mbeki.
The decision was controversial not only because corruption allegations were being levelled against Zuma, but also because Mbeki had not stated that he would be standing down at the next conference. Instead of publicly announcing the decision, Fikile Mbalula and Sihle Zikalala - who had been elected president and secretary-general, respectively, at the 2004 conference - paid a courtesy visit to Mbeki's office at Luthuli House, where they told him of the league's plans.
Mbeki was obviously not happy with the decision, but could not accuse the league's leaders of ill-discipline, because they didn't publicly announce their decision before first privately informing him.
Malema abandoned this approach and publicly pronounced on a number of youth league decisions that were in conflict with ANC policy.
He probably thought no action would be taken against him. After all, the post-Polokwane ANC leadership had shown little appetite for maintaining the type of discipline demanded by Mandela in the 1990s.
His greatest miscalculation was to undermine Zuma's determination to secure a second term as party leader.
To do so, Zuma knew that strong action would have to be taken against the one man who had come to epitomise the anarchy that has characterised the party since he took office in 2007.