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ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema can only get away with unconstitutional statements calling for black South Africans ‘to take the land without payment’ because there are no social movements strong enough to put his words into action, writes Ronald Wesso.

‘We have to take the land without payment,’ said Julius Malema to a crowd at a recent election rally, ‘because the whites took our land without paying and transformed them into game farms. The system of willing seller and willing buyer has failed.’ In his usual manner Jacob Zuma remained quiet while Malema continued amid loud applause, ‘We all agree they stole the land. They are criminals, they should be treated like that.’

Malema here was not just attacking white landowners but also South Africa’s constitution and ANC policy. The constitution of course guarantees property rights and compensation and makes criminals not of white landowners but of people who would try to ‘take the land without payment’. Consistent with this, successive ANC governments have carefully protected the property rights of white farmers and supported their business ambitions to compete for export markets. This is why Kgalema Motlanthe was quick to reassure predictably upset white reactions to Malema’s call. He explained that the ANC is non-racial and Malema’s statements were based on ‘wrong logic’. Motlanthe also said that it is not right to say that all white people were criminals, ‘It can’t be correct to generalize like that. It is not scientific or healing.’

These exchanges were reported on the website and the first reader to comment wrote, ‘Give Motlanthe a Double Bells and Zuma has no Balls!!!!’ Others took up the discussion portraying Malema as desperately anti-white, Zuma as either a spineless puppet or an expert manipulator using young Julius, and Motlanthe as a rather feint voice of some kind of reason. There was an almost universal consensus that Malema is a total idiot, as clueless in politics as in woodwork.

The fact is, Julius Sello Malema might struggle to knock together a kitchen cupboard, but in politics he knows exactly what he is doing. He knows how to play to an audience, white or black. Even his genuinely stupid comments are probably deliberate, like that of Reagan and Bush, designed to endear him to a particular constituency. Did you hear what our Juju has said now? Revolutionaries must make lots of babies, so we can outnumber the whites. Hahaha. Let the whites choke on that one. They really believe we don’t know about birth control.

So although these comments of Malema are attacking the constitution and ANC policy – which both protect white wealth – he did in this instance express an opinion that is popular among blacks. An opinion that goes something like this: Although white people have been selling and buying the land for a long time, and the present owners probably bought it from other whites, as a community they got the land through the racist violence and robbery that made up colonialism and Apartheid. Even the money that changed white hands during these transactions came from exploiting blacks. They are the beneficiaries of systematic crimes against generations of blacks and therefore should have no right to the ownership of the land or to compensation for that ownership.

Supporters of this opinion are not necessarily slavish followers of Malema. It is perfectly possible to support particular statements or acts of a politician without supporting the power of that politician. In this case it is even advisable. Malema was campaigning for votes for the ANC, he showed a willingness to break away from the constitution if it means more votes and power for his party, but the ANC is not about to declare white landowners criminals whose land must be taken without payment. Ask them and they will tell you that they are thinking of ways of speeding up land reform, but they will stay within the framework of the law and constitution that guarantees white land owners their rights to property and compensation. In other words, they will continue their long time approach. Indeed, a few days after Malema’s comments Jacob Zuma was reassuring white farmers in Elgin, Western Cape that they had nothing to fear.

The ANC has long had this practice of multiple personalities that it rolls out as the occasion demands: Malema to charge up blacks into voting ANC, Kgalema to calm white property owners from here to Washington, while policy remains geared to building South Africa’s white dominated neoliberal capitalism. In fact, Motlanthe once, briefly, had the role Malema has now perfected. He became secretary general of the ANC at a time when they had just adopted the pro-capital, neoliberal Gear policy and coolly announced it non-negotiable, much to the outrage of black working class organisations. Motlanthe, having just come from the unions, felt the pressure of this outrage particularly and at his first May Day rally in his new capacity he caused a Malema-like round of media/white panic and ANC statesmen’s reassurance by calling on the workers to hate capitalism and declaring that the ANC would always support their efforts to overthrow this system. Of course the ANC remained as committed to capitalism as ever. Same roles, different actors, same pro-capitalist neoliberal policies.

One reason why Malema can safely make this statement is the absence of strong social change movements. Had such strong movements existed among the landless and rural poor, he would have to be much more circumspect. Activists would no doubt have used his verbal break with the constitution as an opportunity to break with property rights in action by occupying white-owned land without payment. Malema would find it impossible to play his role as his party and state rush to the defence of white landowners. All over the world, wherever strong movements of the rural poor and landless exist, they are using illegal land occupations and expropriations as a strategy. They have found that staying within the laws and constitutions of capitalist societies means staying oppressed, frustrated, excluded and exploited. They have found that to achieve self-management over their land and lives they have to be prepared to take on the revolutionary challenge of mounting direct actions against the rights of capitalist property and the authority of the capitalist state.


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