Could South African military turn on Jacob Zuma?

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Julius Malema, foreground, second from right, greets supporters on his arrival at the launch of their municipal election manifesto in SowetoImage source, AP
Image caption,
Julius Malema uses fiery rhetoric to whip up his supporters

When Julius Malema recently warned South African President Jacob Zuma that soldiers were going to "turn their guns" against him, one might have been forgiven for dismissing this as vintage Malema hyperbole.

He may have received some military training in the past but the red-bereted "commander in chief" of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) as he is known, is a populist politician, not a Che Guervara guerrilla leader.

During the launch of his party's manifesto a few days ago, Mr Malema similarly warned that South Africa's soldiers were among his supporters - a fact that is probably true given the pluralist nature of the South African National Defence Force.

But how much should we read into Mr Malema's military musings?

Mr Malema may be a wannabe revolutionary who frequently alludes to Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and Venezuela's former leader Hugo Chavez's revolutionary fervour. But he is smart, quick-witted and no fool.

He knows how to capture the public's imagination and press the buttons of the leader who he once said he would be prepared "to die for".

A few months ago, when the Constitutional Court ruled that President Zuma had violated the country's basic law by failing to head calls to "pay back the money" after security upgrades to his rural home, one of South Africa's defence unions responded in anger.

Sandu (The South African National Defence Union) accused both the president and parliament of having "constitutional dirt on their hands". They appeared to speak for many South Africans.

That sense of frustration also bubbled over in 2009 when more than 1,000 disgruntled soldiers went on the rampage in the administrative capital, Pretoria, to protest against poor pay and conditions. But tear gas and rubber bullets quickly quelled their "rebellion" and no-one for one moment thought it was the start of a coup.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Mr Zuma has faced corruption charges

Some in the armed forces clearly align themselves with many ordinary South Africans concerned about the integrity of their president.

But Jakkie Cilliers from the Institute of Security Studies - himself a former South African soldier - believes it is unlikely that Mr Malema "can tap into a deep vein of running discontent" even though the military is "underfunded and overstretched".

The new South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is home to a wide range of interests.

Among its members are former apartheid era soldiers, fighters from Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the former armed wing of the governing African National Congress (ANC), other freedom fighters such as the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and a new generation of "born free" South African soldiers, who were still children when the armoured vehicles of the old apartheid security state swept through the streets crushing everything in their path.

Image source, Getty Images

Julius Malema:

  • Born 3 March 1981 in Limpopo province
  • Mother was domestic worker and single parent
  • Joined African National Congress (ANC) aged nine
  • Elected leader of its youth wing in April 2008
  • Convicted of hate speech in March 2010 and September 2011
  • Expelled from ANC in April 2012 for sowing divisions in party
  • Launched Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in July 2013

Central to today's South African military is the lack of a core political identity. And central to the South African state is the fact that it is a constitutional democracy and soldiers are given space to express their views, just like any other South African.

Unlike other countries where South African troops have been deployed as peacekeepers, including Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the South African military is credited with a sense of professionalism. That has meant it has kept out of politics.

What about the generals?

The top brass of the armed forces are largely made up of those loyal to the governing party.

And despite problems of resources, Mr Cilliers argues that it is unlikely to be enough to provide political ammunition for Mr Malema.

"I think there is no possibility of senior military aligning themselves with anyone other than the ruling party," he said.

"The values of constitutionalism are taught and understood at every level of the military, so we are unlikely to see anything like insubordination, let alone an attempted coup."

So when Mr Malema talks about soldiers "turning their guns" against President Zuma is he perhaps speaking metaphorically, threatening more civil unrest rather than the potential for a military coup?

Image caption,
SANDF has members from many different backgrounds

"There is no doubt that such language prepares people for discontent," says Somadoda Fikeni, a political analyst,

But it is ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so.

He worries about ordinary South Africans, the millions of unemployed for whom Mr Malema clearly holds some appeal.

His talk of "revolution" may hold "tantalising appeal" but to Mr Fikeni the danger is not with the EFF leadership, "but the people who take him literally".

The ANC did take Mr Malema literally when in a recent TV interview the "commander in chief" issued a chilling warning, that made headlines around the world - that the Zuma government would be removed "through the barrel of a gun". The ANC responded by threatening to sue him for treason.

President Zuma, as a former head of intelligence for the ANC and a member of MK, knows a thing or two about insurgency.

He also knows that the best counter-insurgency strategy is to win the propaganda war, erode your opponents' support base and offer a legitimate alternative that keeps your supporters onside.

Mr Malema may picture himself as a revolutionary making waves in the run-up to municipal elections - but he relies on questions over President Zuma's legitimacy to breath oxygen into his campaign.

Until that is addressed, some would argue, Mr Malema will draw a crowd.