South Africa's potshot politics bring Mandela's ANC to the street

Two songs have gone a long way in unravelling post-apartheid politics in South Africa. Jacob Zuma sang "bring me my machine gun" on his way to the presidency, while Julius Malema - who was seen by many as a future president - sang "shoot the Boer" (Afrikaans farmer) as he rallied popular support for his cause.

Their careers, for so long linked, have diverged in recent months. Mr Malema, the president of the African National Congress Youth League, has been suspended from the party and his political career is in tatters. Mr Zuma, meanwhile, has strengthened his hold on the ANC leadership following the suspension of the young pretender.

In 2011, Mr Malema was given a five-year party suspension for offences including calling for regime change in Botswana and for criticising Mr Zuma. He appealed the decision, but this month he was served a second suspension for calling Mr Zuma a dictator.

All this shooting from the hip jars with the hallowed image of the ANC after the demise of the apartheid state in 1994. Nelson Mandela's vision of reconciliation seemed to triumph and he was celebrated as a paragon of political virtues. The status of South Africa's first democratically elected president, however, has only highlighted the flaws and ambiguities of later leaders.

His immediate successor Thabo Mbeki was a man of paradoxes. He promoted democracy on the African continent while overseeing its erosion at home; his denials of the threat of Aids contrasted with his cultivated image as a technocrat; and his vision of an African renaissance was hindered by his unease with traditional societies.

Mr Zuma deposed Mr Mbeki in 2007 after a vicious feud and propelled by youth support and revolutionary songs such as Umshini Wami, controversially translated as "bring me my machine gun".

He brought his own complications. As deputy president in 2004, he was implicated in a corruption scandal in South Africa's 47 billion rand (Dh22 billion) arms deal, and in 2005 he was charged with raping a family friend. But the ensuing trials - in the media and in court - strengthened Mr Zuma's position and highlighted young black South Africans' scepticism towards the country's institutions.

Mr Zuma seemed to capture the zeitgeist as a new, younger ANC emerged in 2007. But as Mr Mbeki had found, young people's disillusionment soon focused on him.

In 2008, when Mr Malema was elected as president of the party's youth wing, the winning political platform was simple. Black South Africans were still oppressed by institutionalised racism and, as such, it was permissible for them to demand that the mines be nationalised and white-owned land be expropriated.

If Nietzsche philosophised with a hammer, Mr Malema used a wrecking ball, and in so doing appealed to the disenchanted, poorly educated and unemployed in the electorate.

His is approach followed the tradition of radicalism within the youth league. Mr Mandela himself was a founding member whose radicalism pushed the ANC to protest more aggressively in the 1950s.

In the post-apartheid era, the remit of the youth league has changed. More than half of 18 to 25-year-olds are out of work, a demographic that forms the core of Mr Malema's base. He promoted an aggressive anti-capitalist ideology, promising to reverse the historical injustices. He appealed to the same sentiment that had brought Mr Zuma support during his trials and taps the fears of many black South Africans who believe the country's institutions cannot be trusted. To an extent, this is a hangover from apartheid.

Like Mr Zuma before him, Mr Malema has exploited this distrust by setting himself up as an enemy of the state institutions. His mistake (if it proves to be one) was to repeatedly deal with the party itself as if it was an institution, challenging it on its policy on Botswana and Zimbabwe and challenging a court ruling on hate speech with his "shoot the Boer" lyrics.

The saga appears to have played out in Mr Zuma's favour as he seems to have a united party behind him. Mr Malema and his allies have been shown that opposing South Africa's institutions stops at ANC headquarters. But with or without Mr Malema, the rejection of institutions remains, along with millions of unemployed young black people in South Africa.


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