Political Pairings in Southern Africa: Zuma and Malema South Africa’s answer to Zimbabwe’s Mugabe and Nkomo?

Watching footage of sessions of the South African parliament is quite the experience. Certainly never a dull moment. A quick glance at a handful of videos and one sees where the different players position them on the political playing field. The rivalry and acrimony are clear.

The most common trend is that of MPs from the Economic Freedom Fighters party (EFF), led by the young and charismatic Julius Malema who formed the party in 2013 after parting ways with the dominant African National Congress (ANC) in a much publicised spat with party leader and president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, rising out of turn in order to bring up issues of urgent import in their estimation that are being ignored by the Speaker of the House. Speaker Baleka Mbete is accused by red clad EFF members of being partial to Zuma and, as such, of stonewalling their attempts to bring certain topics up for consultation. The Speaker admonishes them to be seated since they did not hae the right to rise in the first place, which they refuse to do, and after a heated exchange the EFF MPs are invariably escorted out of parliament by security – expelled to fight another day.

All the while Mr. Zuma looks on and listens to accusations of financial impropriety and of human rights violations, and calls for greater accountability and transparency with a smile. The EFF reaction to this is that Zuma doesn’t take parliament seriously.

This near ritual occurance is seen as a display of clear inflexibility and bias on the speaker’s part by the EFF, and as an attempt to make a mockery of South Africa’s parliamentary procedures by ANC MPs. Democratic Alliance MPs join their EFF counterparts in chiding Zuma for his perceived misdeeds but do so in a less attention grabbing fashion.

Zuma and Malema were once close allies – Zuma the mentor and Malema his eager protégé. Zuma, of course, was active in the anti-apartheid movement and served a decade-long jail term for it, alongside the likes of Mandela, and Walter Sisulu who each spent just over a quarter of a century behind bars at the behest of the apartheid regime. He fought apartheid from both within South Africa and without, in Swaziland, Mozambique and finally Zambia, before returning to South Africa in the early 1990s. He has been president since 2009.

Malema, being far younger, was nowhere near to being part of Zuma’s generation, but his childhood coincided with the tail end of apartheid so it was not at all lost on him. He had his own experiences with the harsh realities of South African society. He joined the ANC youth league in the 1990s, and even underwent training in armed resistance under the aegis of the party.

Something about the rapport between these two men makes on think of two political figures in South Africa’s neighbour Zimbabwe – i.e. Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo. Mugabe and Nkomo are two men who were bitter enemies and then tried mending fences, at least for a time, merging their parties, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU – run by the monolithic style leader Mugabe) and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU – headed by the more moderate Nkomo) to form ZANU-PF in 1987 after half a decade of clashes between them. On a personal level the two men never could put aside their differences leading to Nkomo leaving the country at one point and ending his political career as a powerless vice president.

Zuma and Malema are erstwhile friends now at loggerheads, somewhat the other way around compared to Mubage and Nkomo. Both pair’ collaboration saw the formation of new political parties. Whereas Mugabe and Nkomo merged ZANU and ZAPU, Malema was ejected from the ANC and out of the rift a new party – the far left EFF – saw the light of day.

Nkomo’s differences with Mugabe are summarized in letters written by Nkomo in the early 1980s from England where he had fled for some time to seek refuge from Mugabe. In them it can be seen that Mugabe accused Nkomo of plotting to overthrow him with the help of South African mercenaries and wanting to destabilise the country in general because he had not managed to win power by electoral means, securing less seats than Mugabe in the first elections held in independent Zimbabwe. Nkomo appealed to Mubage to tamp down the violence in order to leave a more liveable country for futue generations. Mubage called Nkomo a snake in the 1980s, but mourned him as a giant and as a founder of the Zimbabwean nation upon his passing in 1999. 

The Malema-Zuma equivalent of Nkomo’s letters are basically the parliament footage. When they were friends Malema famously said that he would kill for Zuma. Later he back pedalled on his support for Zuma, calling him “domkop” (Afrikaans for “foo”) and saying the president was out of touch with the poor and had lost touch with his original ideals. In parliament, Malema has chared that Zuma gave his tacit approval to extra judicial killings of striking miners in the area of Marikana, has misused state funds and uses the speaker of the house as a shield to avoid being taken to task on these matters in parliament. 

Only time will tell whether Malema will find his way back into any form of political cohabitation with Zuma, whether they could ever come to the point of fusing their political entities into the same apparatus, whether Malema or Zuma will end up neutralised and benin political players and how they will describe eachother in future. Zuma and Mubage have not always necessarily been on the same page, yet the former found it within himself to refer to the latter as his dear brother earlier this year, so one never knows.

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