OPINION: Julius Malema, pretender to the throne

There are stranger things than the EFF's Julius Malema being feted on his 'London tour' and receiving rapturous applause at Chatham House and the Oxford Union.

Why, one might ask? Perhaps because what Malema said resonated with those in the audience? Or was it because he set out viable alternatives to the current South African paralysis which is underwritten largely by patronage and ever-increasing corruption?

It's hard to tell since Malema and his party hold 7% of the vote and their message of 'redistribution' has been scant on detail. Even they know 'nationalisation' of just about everything is somewhat impractical. Their single strapline of the year 'Pay back the money!' captured the imagination but what it actually achieved has been limited.

The ANC in general and in Parliament, in particular, has been so strategically clumsy that it allowed the EFF to gain the upper hand in the minds of the public. Given the Zuma government's increasing move to securitisation and an ever-compliant Speaker in the house chair, the scene was set for clashes. Mostly the weakness and inability of the ANC to deal with an unaccountable president has provided the EFF with the silver platter it needs for its filibustering.

But as we have come to learn, form mostly overcomes substance these days and Malema and his red brigade are able to capture the imagination of the media. Those in faraway places are equally prone to such 'personality cult politics' instead of debating substantive ideas.

And so, in some senses, Malema, the swashbuckling young 'fiery freedom fighter' also fits a stereotype of where Mandela's South Africa might rather find itself. It is long a myth which those in the developed world have been preoccupied with. And so as we mourned Madiba's passing two years ago, many were predicting some sort of descent into a race war. Well, that never happened.

And so while much of what Malema says is rhetorically titillating, it provides no real solution to South Africa's intractable challenges. It was, after all, Malema himself who played a heavy hand in delivering the ethically compromised, shambolic President Zuma to South Africa. But more than that, Malema is the walking talking contradiction of Breitling and black economic empowerment exploitation and a lifestyle that has been questioned by SARS.

Yet, where there are intellectual vacuums at the heart of public debate and where the ANC fails to lead, as it ought to, Malema will always find his comfortable niche. As he said in England, "we represent the poorest of the poor. We speak for them".

One might question the accuracy of the statement but naturally in a country with such high levels of inequality, increasing impunity and corruption on the part of its leaders and stubborn unemployment, it is easy for the Malema message to resonate. This is so even if Malema and his band of EFF comrades seem to have no viable policy alternatives on the table.

And so it is that South Africa wafts one level away from ratings agencies 'junk status'. We seem stuck in a paralysis driven mostly by President Zuma who governs largely in his own narrow interests. Our state-owned enterprises are largely in a corporate governance shambles because Zuma seems so keen to protect the severely compromised likes of Dudu Miyeni and Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

Personal relationships appear to be the driving force behind Zuma's appointments. Now that the capable and ethical Minister of Finance Nhlanhla Nene has been shafted, then surely those within Cabinet and the ANC who still hold some honour should call time on this presidency? South Africa's democratic institutions and reputation have suffered enough from Zuma and his merry band of exploitative hangers-on.

Recently veteran Financial Times journalist, Martin Wolf visited South Africa for the first time in 15 years. Wolf's concern is for a slide to populism of the wrong kind when he says, "The fundamental point is that if the country does not shift to a path of faster, employment-generating growth, the populist disaster seems increasingly inevitable. It may be too late to make the needed switch, particularly with President Jacob Zuma at the helm. But the stagnation and high unemployment of today are a politically unsustainable combination. Change will come. Let it be in the right direction".

South Africa needs new, ethical leadership and fresh ideas. This week Anglo American announced that it would be cutting 85,000 jobs. This is a crisis for those who will now be unemployed and most likely never work again. For that is the South African reality.

Into such vacuums Malema sounds like a promising alternative.

Of course, it would be the wrong turn, yet if the ANC has run out of steam then other pretenders of even more dubious stature will vie for the throne. And that is what Wolf and others are sounding the warning bells about, among other things.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february.