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Letter From Jo’burg

Leaving home, coming home, the politics seem familiar.

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No sooner had I left my U.S. home and all its fractious politics that I ran into the same scenario thousands of miles away in my other home, South Africa. I came back to brutal opposition politics and a bubbling cauldron of dissent within the ruling party not unlike America’s Blue Dog Democrats.

In South Africa, the ruling African National Congress Party has always been a broad church, accommodating political stripes from the left, right and center. Tensions among them have always ebbed and flowed, sparked principally by the left—the Communist Party and the powerful labor unions. And in the current politics, tensions are flowing powerfully. The left elements are raising their voices, if not yet flexing their muscles, trying to steer the government into a more socialist agenda, pushing it to abandon the fiscally conservative, business-friendly, free-market approach of the previous government led by Thabo Mbeki.

Mbeki’s government stimulated business opportunity and economic growth, along with major efforts to attract foreign direct investment. But massive poverty remains, giving ammo to its critics. The left was a key actor in the drama that unseated Thabo Mbeki and elevated Jacob Zuma to the country’s presidency. And to almost no one’s surprise, the chickens are coming home to roost.

The left is demanding more government spending and the scrapping of inflation targets that guide monetary policy. It’s vehemently arguing that it is entitled not only to be heard, but also to have its way as the main center of political power. And it has even gotten personal, with Julius Malema, the firebrand president of the ANC Youth League, calling Jeremy Cronin, the Communist Party’s deputy secretary general, a “white messiah,” for disagreeing with his call for nationalizing the mines and the manufacturing sector. Cronin responded by calling Malema “a racist.”



The Communist Party refused to allow Malema to speak at its recent conference and greeted him at the door singing a Zulu song that, when translated, went like this: "This dog Malema is disrespecting us.” This reminded me of “You lie!” shouted at President Barack Obama by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., except in this case the singers were addressing the president of the ANC Youth League (whom the current senior president has said could be country’s next leader). Moreover, all of them were the same color and in the same party.


The infighting reached such a fever pitch that President Jacob Zuma had to step in. For days, suspense intensified over how Zuma would resolve this embarrassing public spat. But over the weekend, he came out with the verbal equivalent of his theme song, Mshini wam—“Bring me my machine gun.” And while he stopped short of the heavy reprimand that Malema wanted and that the hard-liners expected, nevertheless, in the belly of the beast—the South African Communist Party Congress—Zuma told the left in no uncertain terms to get back in its political cage and chill, telling his audience there was a need to "clarify the rules of engagement."