Yesterday was potentially a very important day for South Africa. Julius Malema, leader of the ANC Youth League – established decades ago by the then-powerless African National Congress (ANC) party to promote a new generation of leadership in the fight for freedom and equality – was convicted in court of using hate speech by publicly singing the song “Dubhula Ibhunu”, which translates to “Shoot the Boer.” Boer, as you may know, is the Afrikaans word for farmer, but the word also more generally refers to all white people of Afrikaner descent.
The streets of Johannesburg were on fire – sometimes literally – during the trial. ANC Youth League supporters, mostly young men with little formal education and no jobs, were protesting what they see as racist and unfair treatment of Juju – the nickname often associated with Malema. Ironic.
The ANC Youth League rather reminds me of the Tea Party, though with much blacker tea. While the Tea Party is overwhelmingly white and conservative, the ANCYL is predominantly black and more…revolutionary. There are even dalliances with the South African Communist Party (which we could, perhaps, call the Rooibos Tea Party) when it comes to things like nationalization of natural resource industries, etc.
Both the White Tea Party and the Black Tea Party have been manipulated by leaders to mistrust government. Both have animosity toward power holders of other races – the Tea Party towards the black president, the ANCYL towards the white baas. Both have radical, misinformed views about what their respective constitutions are or should be.
The reason the Malema verdict is potentially so important is that it could represent another watershed moment for the ANC and for the future of South Africa. President Jacob Zuma – as unlikely a democratically elected president as you’ll ever see without butterfly ballots or hanging chads – relied on Malema to secure the youth vote in the last election. Now, he must distance himself from the toxic Malema to avoid the backlash and fallout from and among powerful whites and the black middle class, as well as others in government or industry that can make life difficult.
But both men are frighteningly powerful. Zuma made alliances long ago with wealthy business owners and has effectively used his Zulu identity to rally supporters. He has some very Clintonesque abilities. Malema also has friends in high places, and is wealthy himself. Despite his flashy lifestyle, he has appealed to the poorest shanty dwellers, especially the unemployed men who believe he will help them find jobs. In actuality, many of these guys are just looking for something to yell and scream about.
When Mandela and other ANC leaders were in prison or in exile, they deliberately decided that tribal identities (Mandela is Xhosa, Zuma is Zulu, for example) should be excluded from ANC politics. As should animosity towards whites (for political and economic reasons, as well as to promote national healing and unity). Now, both have entered the scene, and neither augur well for the future of South Africa.
Zuma was forced to offer an olive branch to Malema today, but basically told him to shape up or ship out. If Malema chooses to shun the ANC, or if he is pushed out, he will likely take his army of ANCYL supporters with him. They don’t understand why the ANC, the party of revolution, won’t let them sing a song from the revolution – “Shoot the Boer.” It could turn into an epic battle that fractures the governing ANC.
That fracture could be bad. Or, it could be good. The bad would be a crippled government, continued chaos in the streets, mounting violence against whites (and Zimbabweans and Malawians, accused of taking jobs away from South Africans) and a general regression of the developing democracy. On the other hand, the ANC has never really faced a legitimate challenge from another political party. The Democratic Alliance (DA) or Congress of the People (COPE) could see an opening, especially if long-time ANC voters ally themselves with one of the two opposition parties. Something like that could be a shot in the arm for a democracy fighting cancer(s) from within.
It will be interesting to watch this all play out. Most whites we speak with can’t stand Malema, and for more reasons than just his “Shoot the Boer” rhetoric. Many blacks who open up to us about it see Malema as a hypocrite – a rich man who pretends to care about the poor for political gain. Both groups see him as a threat to the future of their country. But, unless he is neutralized or a more charismatic leader steps forward to represent the young and unemployed, there could be a real battle brewing.
The comparisons to American politics are too easy and too plentiful, but the outcomes seem so much more palpable here. So many more lives ostensibly hang in the balance. The example of post-colonial democracy South Africa has shown the continent and the world is in danger of – if not collapse – taking a major hit.
In America, the Tea Party has shoved political discourse further to the right. In South Africa, the ANCYL is trying to push it further to the left. Neither bodes well for compromise. Neither bodes well for progress. Neither bodes well for the people.