JOHANNESBURG, Sept 14 (Reuters) – South Africa’s ANC rebel Julius Malema has charged back from the political wilderness, seizing on a mines labour conflict to bait and harry President Jacob Zuma before an end-year leadership conference that will test stability in Africa’s biggest economy.
While Zuma has dithered over the industrial unrest that led to the Aug. 16 police killing of 34 striking miners, Malema is feeding his comeback with the discontent among South Africa’s poor and unemployed that poses the biggest threat to the ANC’s governing alliance since apartheid ended in 1994.
Wearing his trademark beret, the former ANC Youth League leader cast out by the ruling party for indiscipline this year has driven his upscale SUV into the heart of the dusty, scrub-covered platinum mining belt. Here, he heard the grievances of angry strikers carrying spears, machetes and clubs.
“Where are our leaders? Our leaders have sold out South Africa. Our leaders are sleeping with capitalists. Our leaders are enjoying dinners with capital. They have forgotten about us,” the 31-year-old, popularly known as “Juju”, told a raucous crowd of protesting miners this week.
This contrasted with Zuma’s own low-key appearance at the site of the Aug. 16 Marikana mine shootings, surrounded by suited aides and bodyguards who shielded him with a parasol from the sun.
Styling himself an “economic freedom fighter”, Malema has revived a call for nationalisation of mines, an option so far shunned by the government but whose spectre unnerves investors in a sector producing 6 percent of national economic output.
As Malema urges strikers to make the mines “ungovernable”, global credit ratings agencies have been warning that the Zuma government is also on the wrong track in its efforts to end chronic unemployment, corruption and a broken education system.
Prospects for an end to the five-week mines labour strife were dashed on Friday when Marikana strikers rejected a pay offer, and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said the troubles sweeping the sector could badly hurt the economy.
Malema’s energetic populist message, widely projected by domestic and international media, is not only showing up Zuma’s government for what is widely perceived as its weak and slow response to the escalating conflict in the mines.
It also strikes at the heart of South Africa’s post-apartheid power structure: a governing alliance in which powerful unions aligned to the ANC deliver modestly higher wages for workers while ensuring labour stability for big business.
The striking miners say these union bosses and ANC leaders have grown fat on mining company profits, while the workers toiling underground earn wages that keep them in poverty.
The ANC establishment has condemned Malema as an opportunist and the ANC-allied National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) rejected his nationalisation call as irresponsible.
But the politician dubbed by one Western diplomat “the most dangerous man in South Africa” has shown an uncanny ability to make political capital out of Zuma’s shortcomings.
“One of the clever things about Julius is that he gets there quickly. Grass doesn’t grow under his feet,” said Bishop Paul Verryn of the Central Methodist Church, who has been counselling strikers at the Marikana mine after the Aug. 16 killings.
“That gives him often a head start, before anyone has had anything to say, he has already influenced the thinking.”
While the youthful rebel himself is not seen as a leadership rival to Zuma, his noisy activism is boosting behind-the-scenes manoeuvres by some ANC factions to replace the president, with Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe seen as a leading contender.
Despite his own preference for expensive Swiss watches and fancy cars, one sensitive area where Malema has most skilfully skewered the ruling ANC and its business allies is over the deep inequalities that still scar South Africa 18 years after Nelson Mandela proclaimed his dream of a “rainbow nation”.
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