There is a national pastime to which we seem hopelessly addicted. In the imagination of a section of the nation, at least, and in the self-imagination of the ANC in particular, there seems to be a recurring vision of a bereft Julius Malema standing outside the gates of Luthuli House.
In this ANC reverie, Malema is looking haggard, constantly licking his lower lip, bawling like baby and rubbing his hands in humble supplication.
His face is covered with a thick layer of tears mixed with snot, and he is singing a tune akin to Judith Sephuma’s Mmangwane m’polele ke nelwa ke pula (let me in, it is raining on me).
At the point when Malema’s voice is about to go hoarse with grief, ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa appears from above. He stands smiling broadly at the door.
Majestically, Ramaphosa descends the stairs of the Luthuli House entrance, walking towards Malema, with rhythm and dignity.
He is flanked by party chair, Gwede Mantashe, campaigner-in-chief and friend of Malema, Fikile Mbalula, as well as Deputy President David Mabuza.
From a safe distance, Derek Hanekom and Nomvula Mokonyane are looking on, with a hint of glee in their eyes. As Ramaphosa reaches the bottom of the stairs, he opens his arms, and an excited Malema tries to walk and run and fly towards him.
Then Malema and Ramaphosa lock into a long and heartfelt embrace. More than just being an ANC dream, this vision has become part of South African political and popular culture. In terms of this narrative, Julius Malema, leader of the EFF, is a prodigal son, estranged from his home, the ANC. This mythical narrative started shortly after Malema was expelled from the ANC in 2012.
Not even the formation of the EFF in 2013 was able to kill the speculation. If anything, it fuelled it. Over it’s brief five-year history, the EFF itself has repeatedly been projected as the vehicle that would somehow facilitate Malema’s return to the fold.
Similarly, when the EFF surprised everyone and garnered 6% of the national vote in 2014, one might have thought the myth of the return of the prodigal son would die or at least lose momentum.
On the contrary, the myth grew wings. After the 2016 local elections, the EFF became king-makers in several key municipalities.
Then we started hearing desperate pleas from the highest places in the ANC, pleas which sometimes deteriorated into hollow ‘demands’ for the EFF to form municipal coalitions with the ANC.
For each of the past seven or so years, we have listened to various versions of the story of the great return of Malema described with such charming adjectives and adverbs as ‘imminent’, ‘possible’, ‘likely’, ‘necessary’, ‘welcome’, ‘inevitable’ and ‘noma-kanjani’.
The latest instalment of the great Malema myth of return was filed by none other than the ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa and his deputy, David Mabuza.
“We would love to have Julius Malema back in the ANC. He is still ANC deep down in his heart,” Ramaphosa was quoted saying mid-week. By the same token, Mabuza was reported to have said Malema has a ‘special place’ in his heart.
It is no coincident that both Ramaphosa and Mabuza issued their famous invitations to Malema (not the EFF!) on occasions of election campaigning.
From time to time, the identities of the curators, and the precise words used by the pedlars of the great return of Malema change.
But the core message remains as consistent as the catchphrase at the end of each Terminator movie, when Arnold Schwarzenegger, with an exaggerated Austrian-English accent growls: “I vill be back”.
In the case of Malema, it has always been others who have said of him, with the same Schwarzeneggerian vehemence, that: “Malema will be back”.
In the minds of some inside the ANC, when a problem child (as Malema used to be seen as ANCYL leader) grows up, he becomes a prodigal son; and when the prodigal son grows up, he returns home to live happily ever after.
That, is the basic plot of this fairy tale that has captured the imagination of the ANC. As a result, there are recurring furious attempts either to fit Malema into the role of the prodigal son, or to squeeze the ‘prodigal son’ role into Malema.
For years now, hints and allegations of ‘the great return’ have dogged Malema. Like a man under attack by a swarm of killer bees, he has desperately tried to ward off the relentless rain of gossip. In the process, Malema has had to employ and deploy every weapon in his political toolkit.
Sometimes he has employed the famous South African ‘political categorical denial’, complete with all the typical “nooit”, “over-my-dead-body” and “angeke” exclamations.
At other times he has used biting sarcasm and scorn. On Twitter, Malema responded to the latest invitation with a mixture of ‘categorical denial’ and sarcasm: “I won’t do it, that thing (presumably meaning the ANC?) is dead. Worse, they now have two presidents, one for ANC of Natal called Zupta and Ramapostponer for the rest and now I must go and join the confusion, never”. The truth is this toddler political party, the EFF, has developed into a considerable political pressure group. Since arriving in the National Assembly, it has questioned every little convention, stretched every rule, rattled every feather on the back of every peacock and made juicy hamburgers out of every sacred cow. In the process, Parliament has not always been a pretty sight.
Nothing illustrates this more than the picture, once viral on social media, of Malema, grimacing in pain, as three hefty parliamentary white-shirts manhandle him, throwing him and his comrades out of parliament. All in all, the Zuma Presidency, has been good for the EFF in terms of publicity and campaigning. Among their many ‘victories’ against Zuma, the EFF will probably place the Constitutional Court Nkandla ruling towards the top.
However, the crème de la crème of all their small but accumulative victories, the one to relish for some time, is the removal of Zuma.
Technically, Zuma was recalled by the ANC. But it was the last EFF motion of no confidence against Zuma, endorsed by the ANC on the morning of February 14, which became the last straw that broke the back of a very stubborn camel.
How else do we explain Zuma’s bizarre and somewhat incoherent February 14 resignation-statement? An accurate summary of the statement, in two sentences is: “Unless I am given reasons, I will never ever resign. Therefore, I resign with immediate effect”.
Cognisant of the ANC’s penchant for taking radical policy conference resolutions, many of which are never implemented, the EFF moved swiftly to call the ANC’s bluff on their recent resolution on land appropriation without compensation.
They lodged a constitutional amendment motion in Parliament, which the ANC had no choice but to support. As the ruling party, the ANC now has the duty of defending and explaining the Land Expropriation Bill.
At the moment, things could not be better for the EFF. Any wonder the sagging myth of the return of Julius is being vigorously resuscitated?
Now, the crux of the parable of the prodigal son is the moment of return.
If we were to remove from the story that instance when the dude comes crawling home, we would be left with a tale without a tail, tension without resolution and a plot without a climax.
In Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s terminology, such a tale would lack “that thing!”.
But this is the stuff of parables and fictional narratives. So will Malema write himself into the ANC’s parable of the prodigal son? During one talk-radio show in the week, when confronted with the question of whether he could ever go back ‘home’, Malema replied, “I will never be a member of the ANC”. However, he was quick to add that, “it would be naive for any political formation to say it will not engage other political parties, including the ANC”.
Now that is interesting. Are we witnessing the beginnings of a bromance between Ramaphosa and Malema, the ANC and the EFF?
Nevertheless, I have a feeling that right now, Malema wouldn’t mind the ongoing fretting and frothing about his ‘imminent’ return to the ANC, as long as he and the EFF continue to set the national political agenda.
* Maluleke is a professor at the University of Pretoria. He is currently a distinguished fellow and visiting professor at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, in the US.