The levels of poverty, unemployment and material inequality in South Africa are politically and socially unsustainable. This much has always been true. For the country to flourish, democracy –in that well worn cliché –must deliver a “dividend” through the material improvement of the lives of the poor majority.
Towards this end, the ruling ANC has failed–under often difficult circumstances of course. Massive housing, electrification, sanitation and social grants schemes – while admirable – have arguably transformed the masses into lumpen recipients of goods; clients to a system that perpetuates aspects of destitution without changing them. Increasingly, the ANC’s failures stretch beyond the confines of economic policy-making as the party –increasingly the preserve and battle-ground of elites–sets a course adrift from the grievances, concerns and aspirations of the very citizens they claim in their name.
The suspension today of Julius Malema, President of the ANC Youth League, and his rise and fall, must be read against this backdrop.
His rise was marked by an occasional penchant for tapping the zeitgeist: needling the nerves of big capital and the entrenched political elite (both black and white), while concurrently channeling the very real frustrations of poor and increasingly marginal South Africans. His critique of crony politics, Zuma’s leadership qualities, his trenchant–often ill-informed –hostility to those in the echelons of the economy, lingering racialized privelege and his calls for nationalization of the mines, alienated elites within and without the ANC. In a very real way his causes tapped the desperation of those trapped within the structural violence of South African poverty.
Ultimately, he overstepped, over-played, and was caught in a web of his own making. He is, for the minute, politically a dead man walking, although his shadow will continue to fall across the politics of the ANC in the run-up to Mangaung, and beyond.
The twittering classes, never a good barometer of South African opinion, are now ablaze with back-slapping mirth. And some analysts are overstating things. But, the material conditions that grind the dignity from so many South African lives will be reproduced tomorrow, and the next day, awaiting a new “Juju” to give them voice.