Life After Malema: Who Will Lead South Africa’s Young and Disaffected Now?

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Stephane De Sakutin / AFP / Getty Images

ANC (African National Congress) Youth League leader Julius Malema delivers a speech on February 10, 2012 during a meeting in Pretoria.

The African National Congress’ expulsion of its enfant terrible, Julius Malema, answers one question: Yes, the party of Nelson Mandela, the party which overthrew apartheid, still finds racism and hate speech intolerable. But it also poses another: Who now proposes to lead South Africa’s millions of poor, young and unemployed? 

The ANC made its surprise move late Wednesday in response to Malema’s appeal against its decision last year to suspend him for five years for bringing the party into disrepute after calling for the overthrow of the government in neighboring Botswana. By appealing, and not apologizing, the leader of the ANC’s Youth League had proven himself to be a “repeat offender,” the ANC’s disciplinary committee found, and aggravated his offense by threatening that “the disciplinary proceedings will come to an end, but the real battle will start after that when the ANC has to persuade the youth.” Since Malema had raised the seriousness of his offense, his punishment would be increased, too, said the party. Nevertheless, it granted Malema leave to appeal its decision within the next 14 days.

(Photos: South Africa, Fifteen Years On)

As someone who purported to speak for the poor and young but who conspicuously enjoyed the high life himself, Malema was never a true champion of South Africa’s marginalized. But his departure only serves to underline how no political figure in South Africa truly speaks for the millions of black South Africans who find themselves living in the same townships, and enduring the same poor educational systems, housing and health services that their parents experienced under apartheid. Reuters has a fascinating analysis here of how a new labor leadership is emerging from a violent strike at the world’s largest platinum mine. But in politics, South Africa remains a country dominated by a single party that has become synonymous with failing to deliver services to its core constituents and, not coincidentally, corruption and arrogance. Recent elections show the opposition Democratic Alliance is building support but mainly among the affluent and urban.

(MORE: How the ANC Lost Its Way)

The phenomenon of a large, poor, young constituency that feels unrepresented by its country’s political leaders is hardly unique to South Africa. It’s that same dynamic that drove the Arab Spring, and is currently fueling anti-government movements from Nigeria to Occupy Wall Street to Senegal. But the question of how that energy will be tapped and brought to bear in South Africa is as yet unresolved.

MORE: Old Man vs. Rude Kid: South Africa’s (Poor) Substitute Democracy