Sunday, 16 October 2011


Zuma needs to boot out his youth leader

For several years now, if you are a member of the peripatetic banking set, a delicious prospect has softened the psychological impact of the onset of the northern autumn: it is about now that plans are finalised for February’s Cape Town mining indaba.

It is a splendid gathering, part boondoggle, part business. Heads of global mining houses, ministers from across Africa and those seeking to cash in on the global commodities boom attend.

Deals are struck and industry gossip traded, all in a Mediterranean summer climate and washed down by Cape wines.

The ritual exemplifies South Africa’s post-apartheid emergence as a global force. It also keeps its mining industry, the heartbeat of the economy, in the spotlight – or rather it did. If investors’ patience with the ruling African National Congress continues to wane at the rate it is now, the indaba soon risks doing little more for South Africa than boosting sales of its bottled sunshine.

That is why this week’s ANC hearing on the fate of Julius Malema, its dyspeptic youth leader, is so critical. To label him a Mugabe-in-the-making, as some have, is to resort to the language of lurid cartoons. He may have endorsed Zimbabwe’s land invasions but that hardly makes him a putative autocrat. Such is the ANC’s rigid hierarchy, this 30-year-old wannabe has no chance in the foreseeable future of leading the party.

Yet the failure of President Jacob Zuma to rein him in as he has called for the nationalisation of mines and banks has done South Africa’s reputation terrible harm. It is not that investors see nationalisation as imminent. But the leadership’s indulgence of such talk has fuelled uncertainty about the wisdom of long-term capital investments.

More broadly, Mr Malema’s trajectory highlights an intensifying corrosion of the ANC. In a classic tale of South Africa’s muddled times, he has exploited the ANC’s culture of cronyism, the resonance of African nationalist rhetoric and the party’s internal rivalries to amass wealth and influence. For chapter and verse a new biography, An Inconvenient Youth, offers sombre reading for the remaining diligent but sadly silent grandees of the ANC. He has prospered in an environment “where one must believe in the faction, the whole faction and nothing but the faction”, writes Fiona Forde, its author. Quite.

Irked also by government dithering over mining licences and the uncompetitive labour market, one serial indaba dealmaker warns that talk at the gathering will now focus on the rest of Africa and ignore the host nation. He has, he fumes, had one too many meetings with officials who promise to address uncertainties over mining rights and bureaucratic drift – and then don’t.

South Africa’s big platinum miners will stay, such is the country’s dominance of global platinum stocks. But the loss of other potential investments would be a disaster for the sputtering economy and for the very disenfranchised youth Mr Malema has fired up with his redistributive talk. Would the giant coal miners sell if they could? If the price was right, unquestionably.

There is a solution. This week, the ANC assesses whether Mr Malema has brought it into disrepute. Mr Zuma should draw inspiration from leaders of the larger emerging powers whose “Brics” club he has in their eyes joined. First, he should copy the authoritarian style of Beijing and expel Mr Malema from the party. Not suspend, expel. Then he should look to Brazil, where leftwing governments have worked with business to design policies of social inclusion that help to address inequalities every bit as deep.

One former cabinet minister tells me Mr Zuma has long been terrified of alienating the youth leader, who was a vital rabble-rousing supporter when Mr Zuma successfully sought to take over the ANC four years ago. Next year, the president is up for re-election as party leader and needs the broadest coalition of interests possible.

Yet without the lustre of the ANC’s link to liberation, Mr Malema would, as so many party rebels before him, fade from view. Mr Zuma has to steel himself: it is not just the desire of indaba-goers, it is what other Bric leaders would do. If Mr Zuma equivocates, he will betray the very people Mr Malema claims to champion – and ensure his presidency ends in ignominy.

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