Today, African National Congress (ANC) youth leader Julius Malema faced a party disciplinary hearing. He is charged with bringing the party into “disrepute” and for promoting disunity. If found guilty, he could be suspended for several years. On the other hand, if he is exonerated, he will pose a newly significant political threat to President Jacob Zuma, the party leader.
Malema has staked out radical positions ranging from calls to overthrow the government of Botswana, to nationalizing the country’s mining industry, to expropriating without compensation white-owned farmland. Though Malema has no formal ability to make policy in these areas, he is widely popular among the South African poor, who have seen little improvement in their prospects over the past decade. Though the Zuma government has followed sound, market-based economic policies, it is widely believed in South Africa that Malema’s rhetoric has spooked foreign investors.
Insofar as the disciplinary hearing is a proxy fight between Malema and Zuma for the ANC, I would put my money on the president, given the power of the incumbency and the ANC’s emphasis on internal discipline. But, while Malema’s wings may be clipped, there is likely to be a face-saving dimension to the outcome to ensure that his township and other radical supporters are not alienated from the party. Today’s pro-Malema demonstration in Johannesburg, quelled only with exceptional police measures, shows the strength of his support among South Africa’s poor.