Thursday, March 1, 2012

Holomisa, COPE: History Must be a Worrying Factor for Populist Malema

Gift Ngobeni

After much waiting on 29 February 2012 the African National Congress (ANC) finally announced in the evening that ANC Youth League leader, Julius Malema, has been expelled from South Africa’s ruling party. Malema has been found guilty of portraying the ANC government and its leadership, under President Jacob Zuma, in a negative light and for propagating racism. The youth leader called for the change of government in neighbouring Botswana despite President Ian Khama being elected through a democratic process. Malema has also been found guilty of propagating racism or political intolerance for his utterances, at an election rally in Gaeleshewe, Kimberley in May 2011 when he said white South Africans should be treated as criminals for stealing land from black people.

While many youths seem to think it’s unusual for the ANC to get rid of ill-disciplined popular members in this manner, some may remember that  on 30 September 1996, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, Bantu Holomisa was expelled from the ANC by unanimous decision of the ANC National Executive Committee. Holomisa had been an ANC member for a very brief period, joining the organisation in 1994. Yet, in that year, he had emerged from the December National Conference as one of the most popular leaders of the organisation. On 24 September 1996, The Star newspaper reported that Holomisa did not understand political debate and South Africa’s broader political realities and thus could not function within a “progressive” organisation such as South Africa’s ruling party.

Like Malema, Holomisa was a populist and many seemed to love him, but his popularity fed his arrogance and he started to publicly state what his dislikes were in the party he had only joined as South Africa gained democracy two years prior. He said he was unhappy that he was only given a Deputy Minister's post in the new democratic government. He began to feel that he was above the organisation, and that his popularity made him "untouchable" – much like Malema. Holomisa then became a casualty of a disciplinary hearing. He then left to form his own United Democratic Movement (UDM) which seemed popular for a while as its rallies would attract many who would come by buses, especially in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. But soon it showed that millions of South Africans were, as they are today, loyal to the ANC. Many of those who’d left with Holomisa started trekking back to where they had come from.
So early on in South Africa’s democracy the African National Congress was proving that it does not take kindly to members who challenge its leadership and party policies. Unlike Holomisa, Malema is trying to defend himself by appealing and claiming that the charges were “politically motivated”. During his mitigation hearing the National Disciplinary Committe rejected his claim.
"The NDC finding, which was confirmed by the NDC of appeals, was that comrade Malema had publicly expressed his personal views in contravention of ANC policy, thereby sowing divisions within the organisation and bringing the organisation into disrepute," it said. Perhaps Malema realised that being fired from the ANC is not good for his political career, he stands a chance of going from the strong and influential politician to nobody. 

If Malema was indeed trying to create divisions within the party, then this would not have been the first time it would have happened. In a more recent history, in Polokwane in 2007, it became clear that the ANC had two camps at its elective conference. The current South African President, Jacob Zuma, emerged victor over former president, Thabo Mbeki, who had just been removed months earlier as state president. Many who had held high position under the Mbeki leadership at the party lost their posts as well. Two of those were Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa who, like Holomisa had done previously, went on to start their own party which they called the Congress of the People (COPE). The name echoes the 1955 Congress of the People at which the Freedom Charter was adopted by the ANC and other parties, a name strongly contested by the ANC in a legal move which was dismissed by the Pretoria High Court. COPE contested the 2009 general elections and received 7.42% of the vote despite only a few months of existence. 

Thereafter the two leaders of the new party started a bitter public feud which tarnished the image of the organisation and many who had left the ANC for the new organisation quickly called press conferences, announcing their return to South Africa’s ruling party - again a story similar to that of Holomisa’s UDM in the 1990s.

These are just two examples of how recent history has shown that those who decide to question authority in the ANC and those who leave the party thinking their popularity will find them success elsewhere often fail dismally. It also shows that party leadership is always bigger than popular individuals and they can remove them prematurely through disciplinary processes or wait for elective conferences to get rid of them. As Malema might appeal the latest decision again, history must be a worrying factor for him as it shows that he will most likely lose yet again and his supporters will stay with the ANC despite his expulsion.

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