Juju jinxes Zuma over mines unrest
Expelled ANCYL leader Julius Malema has charged back from the political wilderness, seizing on a mines labour conflict to bait and harry President Jacob Zuma before an end-year leadership conference that will test stability in Africa's biggest economy.
While Zuma has dithered over the industrial unrest that led to the Aug. 16 police killing of 34 striking miners, Malema is feeding his comeback with the discontent among South Africa's poor and unemployed that poses the biggest threat to the ANC's governing alliance since apartheid ended in 1994.
Wearing his trademark beret, the former ANC Youth League leader cast out by the ruling party for indiscipline this year has driven his upscale SUV into the heart of the dusty, scrub-covered platinum mining belt. Here, he heard the grievances of angry strikers carrying spears, machetes and clubs.
"Where are our leaders? Our leaders have sold out South Africa. Our leaders are sleeping with capitalists. Our leaders are enjoying dinners with capital. They have forgotten about us," the 31-year-old, popularly known as "Juju", told a raucous crowd of protesting miners this week.
This contrasted with Zuma's own low-key appearance at the site of the Aug. 16 Marikana mine shootings, surrounded by suited aides and bodyguards who shielded him with a parasol from the sun.
Styling himself an "economic freedom fighter", Malema has revived a call for nationalisation of mines, an option so far shunned by the government but whose spectre unnerves investors in a sector producing 6 percent of national economic output.
As Malema urges strikers to make the mines "ungovernable", global credit ratings agencies have been warning that the Zuma government is also on the wrong track in its efforts to end chronic unemployment, corruption and a broken education system.
Prospects for an end to the five-week mines labour strife were dashed on Friday when Marikana strikers rejected a pay offer, and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said the troubles sweeping the sector could badly hurt the economy.
Malema's energetic populist message, widely projected by domestic and international media, is not only showing up Zuma's government for what is widely perceived as its weak and slow response to the escalating conflict in the mines.
It also strikes at the heart of South Africa's post-apartheid power structure: a governing alliance in which powerful unions aligned to the ANC deliver modestly higher wages for workers while ensuring labour stability for big business.
The striking miners say these union bosses and ANC leaders have grown fat on mining company profits, while the workers toiling underground earn wages that keep them in poverty.
The ANC establishment has condemned Malema as an opportunist and the ANC-allied National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) rejected his nationalisation call as irresponsible.
But the politician dubbed by one Western diplomat "the most dangerous man in South Africa" has shown an uncanny ability to make political capital out of Zuma's shortcomings.
"One of the clever things about Julius is that he gets there quickly. Grass doesn't grow under his feet," said Bishop Paul Verryn of the Central Methodist Church, who has been counselling strikers at the Marikana mine after the Aug. 16 killings.
"That gives him often a head start, before anyone has had anything to say, he has already influenced the thinking."
While the youthful rebel himself is not seen as a leadership rival to Zuma, his noisy activism is boosting behind-the-scenes manoeuvres by some ANC factions to replace the president, with Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe seen as a leading contender.
Despite his own preference for expensive Swiss watches and fancy cars, one sensitive area where Malema has most skilfully skewered the ruling ANC and its business allies is over the deep inequalities that still scar South Africa 18 years after Nelson Mandela proclaimed his dream of a "rainbow nation".
Malema himself was born into poverty as the son of a domestic worker in Limpopo, north of Johannesburg. He rose to become ANC Youth League president in 2008, using this post to construct an image as champion of South Africa's poor, excluded masses. This included playing the race card when expedient, such as calling for the seizure of white-owned farmlands.
To stave off charges of racism, he has converted the old "Kill the Boer" struggle song he often liked to sing into an ironic "Kiss the Boer".
While per capita GDP has risen to over $8,000 a year in South Africa, about 40 percent of the population still live on less than $3 a day. Youth unemployment levels are among the highest in the world and nearly half of those who have entered an ANC-run education system face lifetime unemployment.
"What is it that has been resolved in the country, except that some individual politicians have become rich?" Malema asked a group of serving and former soldiers on Wednesday.
"What is it that is going right in this country? Everything is collapsing, people are losing confidence".
Although only around 60 people in civilian clothes turned out to hear Malema on Wednesday, the panic that he provokes in the ANC establishment could be measured by the fact that South Africa's armed forces were put on alert over his plans to hear soldiers' complaints.
Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula went on national radio to condemn what she called attempts by Malema to "agitate" the South African military, calling this activity "counter-revolutionary". South Africa's rand currency dipped on the reports of the military alert.
This allowed Malema to ridicule the government by saying: "Since when are people who need to discuss their grievances a security threat in a democratic South Africa?"
Malema denied he was conspiring with soldiers but declared his aim to try to remove the Zuma leadership "democratically".
"By not paying attention to his inflammatory statements or public appearances, the ANC has allowed Malema to gain an upper hand and appear as a saviour of the disgruntled and the disaffiliated, particularly those who feel the ANC government has forgotten about them," South African daily, The Times, said in an editorial this week.
THE ROAD TO MANGAUNG
Malema's anti-Zuma campaign has found resonance ahead of a December conference in Mangaung to elect the ANC leadership. If Zuma wins re-election, he is almost assured of another term as president until 2019 because the ANC enjoys virtual one-party rule.
Malema's expulsion from the ANC earlier this year had appeared to cement Zuma's re-election, but the escalating mines conflict and the government's sluggish response to it has given fresh ammunition and hope to opponents of the president.
A senior ANC official who asked not to be named said Zuma's rivals in the leadership race were not embracing Malema, but his re-emergence was eroding confidence in Zuma's leadership.
After weeks of silence, the president told parliament on Thursday the government would act against individuals, like Malema and militant union activists, who are stirring up the striking miners.
On Friday, senior ministers announced a crackdown against "illegal gatherings" and the carrying of weapons.
Malema may be vulnerable to official investigations into his lavish lifestyle which won him notoriety - and public questions - when he was serving as ANC Youth League leader.
South Africa's police are investigating his finances and the National Treasury is probing the books of his home province of Limpopo where billions of dollars have gone missing in tenders allegedly involving his political supporters.
Malema has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, saying he pays for his political activities out of his own pocket and rejecting speculation he is receiving money from political friends in Limpopo, ANC heavyweights or the ZANU-PF party of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe.
With the labour conflict flaring apparently unchecked in the mining sector, the president and his allies could struggle to neutralise Malema who was once instrumental in helping Zuma defeat the previous head of state, Thabo Mbeki, at an ANC conference in 2007.
While official enquiries into the "Marikana massacre" drag on, Malema can continue to pillory the presidency over the country's worst security incident since the end of apartheid.
"Zuma has presided over the killing of our people and therefore he must step down. Not even the apartheid government killed so many people," Malema said.