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Assessing and promoting civil and minority rights in South Africa.

Julius Malema Beeld[Source:]

A weak ANC threatens to strengthen the radical populists.

For Julius Malema, the firebrand in South Africa’s forthcoming elections, the only thing that has changed in 20 years since the end of apartheid is that “the government of white people had been replaced with a government of black people”.

It is a line from the former youth leader of the African National Congress turned Economic Freedom Fighter that echoes V.S Naipaul when he wrote of “black men, assuming the lies of white men” in A Bend in the River. Naipaul’s fictional account of post-independence Africa was also written two decades on when the euphoria of liberation from white, colonial rule was giving way to cynicism and anger.

Mr Malema is a divisive populist who, for all his revolutionary talk, is tainted by allegations of the same corruption that he rails against. There is no room in his radical, hard left approach to South Africa’s malaise for recognition of the strides the country has taken. Nor is there, for how much worse things might have been. His searing critique of the ruling ANC resonates nonetheless with members of South Africa’s black majority, frustrated at the pace of economic and social change.

The challenge Mr Malema poses at just 33 years old, is not at the electoral ballot box: by his own admission his party lacks resources. In the view of pollsters the recently formed EFF will pick up no more than 8 per cent of votes this time round. What he represents instead is a generational challenge. He is a clear warning sign of the looming battle for the hearts of younger South Africans for whom opportunity – or the lack of it – is the priority.

The emergence of Mr Malema is made the more poignant by the retirement at the May 7 polls of some of the ANC heavyweights of the post-Apartheid era. One of them is Trevor Manuel, a communist by origin, but who as finance minister forged a liberal economic policy that balanced the need for radical redistribution of wealth with the demands of economic growth. Also leaving is Kgalema Motlanthe, the deputy president, whose integrity and commitment to the ANC’s founding principles stood the test of years.

Some of Mr Malema’s criticisms are justified. To a great extent the ANC has failed thus far to address the deep-seated injustices left by minority rule. The commanding heights of the economy remain dominated by the white elite. The policy of black empowerment has been cosmetic, gifting riches to a small, politically well-connected group. South Africa is today a more unequal society in terms of income distribution than it was under apartheid.

Mr Malema’s prescriptions are more alarming. Like the “big man” in Naipaul’s novel, he advocates nationalising mines and seizing land from whites. You do not have to look to fiction to know this leads not in the direction of prosperity and social development, but towards racial rancour and Zimbabwe-like chaos. For all its faults, these are things that the ANC has carefully avoided.

But the centre ground in South Africa is held by a party whose governing dominance has led to complacency. Thus, for all the criticism of his rule, President Jacob Zuma can speak assuredly of victory on May 7.

Juju, as he is known, may in this context seem a convenient opponent for the ANC – one whose undertones of menace might lead many voters towards the safer, well-known choice. Even so, there are dangers ahead. The ANC’s dominance is also a recipe for indecision, with its constant management of the many, conflicting constituencies within the coalition. In the absence of a more constructive political competition at the centre – one that helps to deliver more effective government – the allure of radical populists can only strengthen in the years to come.

South Africa at a Glance
58 780 000 (mid 2019 estimate)
4.1% y/y in March 2020 (CPI) & +4.5 y/y in February 2020 (PPI)
-1.4% q/q (4th quarter of 2019)
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