An Inconvenient Youth: Julius Malema and the ‘New’ ANC, by Fiona Forde, Picador Africa, RRPR150, 264 pages
The Unlikely Secret Agent, by Ronnie Kasrils, Jacana Media, RRP£14.95, 192 pages
One hundred years ago this Sunday, the burghers of the South African town of Bloemfontein had an unaccustomed and presumably distinctly disconcerting experience. Deep in the heart of the veld, the high plateau that dominates the South African interior, theirs was a traditional Afrikaner community. Little more than a decade earlier, it had been capital of one of the short-lived Boer republics as Afrikaners fought a courageous but doomed battle against British domination.
Yet it was here on January 8 1912 that hundreds of the country’s nascent black middle class met in formal dress, singing the haunting hymn “Nkosi Sikelel’ i-Afrika” (God Bless Africa). Their mere presence would have been shocking enough to the whites. Yet their mission to unite in opposition to blacks’ secondary status in the then newly formed Union of South Africa was truly revolutionary.
The lawyers, doctors, writers and tribal chiefs had gathered to found what was to become Africa’s most illustrious liberation movement. Known then as the South African Native National Congress, it was renamed the African National Congress (ANC) 11 years later. On the world stage possibly only India’s Congress party, a principal inspiration for the ANC’s founders, has gained greater renown for its anti-imperialist record.
It would be wrong to see the ANC as having dominated the South African narrative since 1912, as its praise-singers would have us believe at this weekend’s celebrations. There were long years when it was in the doldrums. In the 1920s, 1930s and early 1940s, led by emollient plodders from the tiny black elite, it was often eclipsed by the unions and the Communist party. It took none other than Nelson Mandela and his peers to use the ANC Youth League to topple the leadership, an antagonism with echoes in ANC rivalries today.
Mandela made his move in 1949, a year after the National party took power and started to formalise apartheid. For a while the ANC thrived in those dramatic years of the Freedom Charter and mass protests, but it is easy to forget that it was supporters of its rival, the Pan Africanist Congress, who were massacred at Sharpeville in 1960. In the early 1970s, with the ANC’s leaders imprisoned or in exile, it was left to church groups, civil society and schoolchildren to keep the anti-apartheid flame alive. Yet the liberation movement turned ruling party rightly has an extraordinary historical lustre, and the majesty of its triptych of leaders in the second half of the 20th century, Chief Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo and Mandela, still – just – casts a softening light on the imperfections of the current crop.
Liberation movements have a habit of not ageing gracefully. Since the ANC took office in 1994, the temptations of office have tarnished the heroic vision of the Mandela generation. It is these two very different sides of the ANC that The Unlikely Secret Agent and An Inconvenient Youth: Julius Malema and the “New” ANC splendidly address.
The former is the simple story of a critical year in the life of one of South Africa’s unsung heroes. It is set in 1963, that fateful year when the police delivered a crippling blow to the anti-apartheid struggle by discovering the underground headquarters of the ANC, arresting its leadership and putting them on trial for their lives. Just over a month later on August 19, Lt Grobler, something of a caricature of an Afrikaner policeman, led a raid on Griggs bookstore in central Durban. There he arrested a willowy young white woman, the daughter of the manageress, for questioning under the new draconian 90-day Detention Act. It is the dramatic story of Eleanor Kasrils’ subsequent imprisonment, interrogation, internment in a mental hospital, escape and then flight into exile that the book tells.
This is not a new genre. In the years since the lifting of the ANC ban in 1990, there have been dozens of revolutionary memoirs. But this has a particular poignance. The subject died in late 2009. Her husband of 45 years, Ronnie Kasrils, wrote this at vertiginous speed a year later. The result is as much love story and epitaph as memoir, and is all the stronger for it. Kasrils himself was the better-known revolutionary. A stalwart of the South African Communist party – known as the “Red Pimpernel” for a slightly comic opera stint underground while the ANC hedged its bets at the start of the transition from white rule – he was a government minister under Mandela and his successor, Thabo Mbeki. Yet refreshingly for an ANC hierarch, he has not allowed long exposure to the movement’s stolid ideological prose to burden his writing. There are no “cadres” here, nor talk of the “vanguard”. Rather, there is an infectious narrative that celebrates one of the thousands whose heroism undermined apartheid.
The Unlikely Secret Agent won last year’s Alan Paton Award, South Africa’s most prestigious prize for non-fiction. It puts Kasrils in noble company. Previous winners since the prize was started in 1989 include Mandela for his mesmerising autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Thomas Pakenham for The Scramble for Africa and Breyten Breytenbach’s Return to Paradise. On reading the opening sentence, I wondered if the judges had not erred. Eleanor’s arrest, we learn, hit Durban’s literary world “like a bombshell”. But that, I soon realised, was atypical. This is a story of stark choices, moral dilemmas, compassion, cruelty and love, delivered in simple and compelling prose.
The heroine is not lionised. Indeed, the reader is constantly and rightly reminded that she is treated far better than she would have been had she been black. Her sacrifices are mentioned only in passing: on fleeing into exile she had to abandon her daughter from a previous marriage. It is a reminder of the price so many ANC leaders paid in the decades fighting apartheid, including Mbeki, whose son disappeared while he was in exile, and Jacob Zuma, his successor as South Africa’s and the ANC’s president. Overshadowing the saga is the author’s clear nostalgia, not just for his wonderful wife but also, one suspects, for an era when it was rather easier to distinguish between right and wrong.
So why does this matter now? It matters because it helps to put into perspective the very different story told by Fiona Forde, who has fastened on a more complex and controversial character. For some South Africans, Julius Malema, former leader of the ANC’s Youth League, is the ultimate anti-hero. The chubby 30-year-old, who led the league from 2008 until November 2011, is best known abroad for his populist demagogy and penchant for bling. He is in many ways the embodiment of whites’ (and indeed western investors’) worst fears for the future.
Malema has, after all, praised Robert Mugabe, the 87-year-old autocrat of neighbouring Zimbabwe, and endorsed Mugabe’s policy of seizing white-owned farmland. Malema has called for the nationalisation of the mines. He has also sought to re-racialise politics – a tactic with potential political dividends. For all its grand rhetoric, the ANC has struggled to convert its promises into meaningful change for the underclass, even as some of its leaders have attained phenomenal wealth. In a revival of a rift dating back decades, Malema has positioned himself as the head of a nationalist wing and targeted the Communists, which, with the unions, forms part of the ruling alliance.
Malema is in fact very much a member of an ANC crony capitalist clique. Forde memorably describes him at a World Federation of Democratic Youth conference in Caracas and his ANC Youth Wing colleagues draped in designer accessories, looking “more like mafia than young militant activists”. Her book documents his array of fast cars, properties and investments, all in theory acquired on an ANC salary. Yet his supporters do not appear to resent the hypocrisy: he has made it, and good luck to him. Rather they focus on his redistributive rhetoric, which his opponents fear risks undermining the very compact that sealed the end of apartheid.
Forde, an Irish journalist who has written acutely about South African politics for several years, has done her adopted country a service. Her biography paints a good picture of Malema’s impoverished origins in a remote township, peeling back the veil that the party’s leaders have long been keen to keep in front of the party’s inner workings. Achille Mbembe, a historian, writes in a foreword of how Malema’s stock is rising in a “landscape of ruins … [including] an ANC consumed by corruption and greed, brutal internecine battles for power and a deadly combination of predatory instincts and intellectual vacuity”. Much of what Forde writes reinforces this mordant view. As she elaborates Malema’s rise through provincial politics, she writes of his home province, Limpopo: “It is a place where one must become a political miscreant, a believer in the politics of the provincial elites. It’s where one must believe in the faction, the whole faction and nothing but the faction.”
The book does show signs of haste. Forde is also on occasion too sympathetic to her subject. She criticises the BBC journalist who was publicly insulted by Malema for pressing the ANC youth leader with questions, suggesting that he would have been more polite to a party youth leader in London. That is surely wrong. But the book abounds with striking detail and has the essence of many great biographies: starting with a closeness between author and subject that encourages confidences, it ends in disillusionment. In Forde’s many exchanges with Malema, one comment is especially relevant for the ANC. She asks him if he sees himself as a better businessman or politician. “Do the two have to be mutually exclusive?” he asks in reply. Precisely, the reader is tempted to reply.
ANC leaders are fond of telling outsiders that their decision-making takes time but reaches the correct outcome – and there is something to this. Malema was last November suspended from the ANC for five years. He appeared finally to over-reach when he launched a broadside against Zuma – acting, it was presumed, on behalf of the president’s rivals. A month after his suspension, a cloud over the country’s investment profile was lifted when Pretoria’s high court ruled against the award of a mining licence to a controversial shell company linked to leading politicians. It is important for outsiders to note such moves. It is too easy to view South Africa from Europe through the prism of decades of failed post-colonial states.
Yet for a cautionary tale of what happens when a former liberation movement ossifies in power, you have only to look over the border at Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF. Formally it has been in coalition for three years, but in reality it presides over a decaying state. The ANC rightly prides itself on being superior to Mugabe’s Zanu-PF, but two years short of its 20th anniversary in power, it has all but run out of ideas and ideals.
Maybe, for the dream of 1912 to be truly realised, the ANC needs to lose an election. India’s Congress party offers an encouraging analogy. After decades in power, it was, to its surprise, voted out of office. It had to modernise before it could return. But although South Africa’s opposition, centred on the old white liberal party, has been on a roll, it lacks the lustre of liberation; and an irrevocable split between the ANC’s nationalists and the left is unlikely. History suggests that breakaway wings soon die. (Malema would do well to lick his wounds, and wait.)
There will be much toasting of the glory years this weekend; deals will be done; and the cadres can look ahead to years of juicy state tenders. Read these two books. The salutary sweep of many a revolution is told in their pages.
Alec Russell is the FT’s comment and analysis editor and a former Johannesburg bureau chief. He is author of ‘After Mandela: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa’ (Windmill Books)