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With the clock ticking down to the African National Congress’s crucial five yearly elective conference, a political circus that has dogged South Africa for months – damaging investor sentiment and tarnishing the image of the continent’s oldest liberation movement – shows few signs of abating.
On Thursday, the next act will play out when an ANC disciplinary committee hears Julius Malema’s appeal against his expulsion from the ruling party. The hearing will determine whether Mr Malema, the rabble-rousing leader of the ANC’s youth league and one of the main protagonists in the show, will be permanently or temporarily expunged from the movement.
If recent events are any indicator, the former seems the more likely outcome, as the other key protagonist, President Jacob Zuma, seeks to get a grip on his fractious party before the December conference.
That meeting will decide whether he can run for a second term, while charting the course ahead for both the country and the party.
Speculation has been rife that Mr Zuma may face a leadership challenge similar to the battle he led in 2007 that forced Thabo Mbeki from office. Mr Malema, accused of bringing the party into disrepute, has been the most vocal and conspicuous face of those believed to be working to unseat Mr Zuma. But the president is fighting back.
Last week, he wheeled out the ANC’s big guns for an unprecedented briefing to chastise party indiscipline. The motivation for the gathering of the party’s top six officials was clear – to send a message to the ANC’s masses that Mr Zuma is in charge and, despite speculation to the contrary, that unity abounds within its leadership.
The prime target of a statement delivered at the briefing, which spoke of “shockingly crude, disrespectful and un-ANC remarks” made by some members, was also transparent – Mr Malema.
The following day Mr Malema, 31, was suspended from the party with immediate effect for likening his president to a dictator – even though the youth leader is already facing expulsion.
Some observers saw last week’s action as a savvy strategic move by Mr Zuma, a wily political operator and former party intelligence chief. Flanking him at the briefing, amid calls for unity, were Kgalema Motlanthe, his deputy president, who is considered the youth league’s choice to take over at the top, and Mathews Phosa, the ANC treasurer, who is perceived to be sympathetic to Mr Malema.
The youth leader’s suspension or expulsion, some argue, will banish him to the political wilderness, depriving him of a platform on which to speak and the power of patronage that emanated from his ANC post.
Without him, those plotting against Mr Zuma lose their loudest and most combative voice, the argument goes. Although Mr Motlanthe is considered the most likely alternative to the president, few expect him to challenge his leader openly. Yet it would be naive to assume that Mr Zuma’s problems will disappear and it may still prove too early to write Mr Malema’s political obituary, with the ANC in crisis and plagued by factionalism.
Mr Zuma’s presidency has been mired by concerns about weak leadership, cronyism and corruption. All the while, complaints about unemployment, poverty and gaping inequalities are rising. For that reason, Mr Malema’s outbursts about the country’s socials ills resonate with many.
“He may not be coming with solutions but he simply reads the situation and understands that these are the issues that face the people. To that extent, nobody can fault him,” says one ANC official.
The corporate community will shed no tears for Mr Malema’s plight. His calls for the nationalisation of mines have amplified the policy uncertainty that has stymied investment in Africa’s largest economy.
But as long as the ANC’s battles rage on, the country suffers from a blurring between the party and the state and no genuinely competitive opposition. The result is a sense of political paralysis as the social pressures mount.
Businesses’ frustrations were illustrated by a highly unusual political message contained in the recent annual report of one of South Africa’s largest banks.
“Our political leadership’s moral quotient is degenerating and we are fast losing the checks and balances that are necessary to prevent a recurrence of the past,” wrote Reuel Khoza, Nedbank’s chairman. “This is not the accountable democracy for which generations suffered and fought.”
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