Johannesburg — 'Economic Freedom in our Lifetime' is either the catchphrase or swearword of the season in the ANC, depending on which camp you are in.
It is the banner under which Julius Malema and the ANC Youth League are lobbying support and is now a proxy campaign for leadership change at Mangaung.
ANC slogans during the liberation struggle were not just militant exhortations and messages of defiance. They were meant to evoke emotion, to rally support during the most repressive times and to unite South Africans wherever they were in the world in a common fight for freedom and democracy. Former ANC President Oliver Tambo's "Make South Africa ungovernable" message broadcast on Radio Freedom in 1984, for example, resonated throughout the country, inspiring ordinary people to join in the fight against Apartheid.
There were other slogans which were popular but controversial. The "No education before liberation" slogan for example was condemned by both the ANC and United Democratic Front as self defeating, while "Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer", immortalised by former ANC Youth League President Peter Mokaba, was seen as an incitement to violence during South Africa's transition period.
"Freedom in our Lifetime" was the title of an article written by Nelson Mandela which appeared in Liberation, the newspaper of the Congress Movement, in June 1956, a year after the adoption of the Freedom Charter by the Congress of the People.
"Never before has any document or conference constituted such a serious and formidable challenge to the racial and anti-popular policies of the country. For the first time in the history of our country the democratic forces irrespective of race, ideological conviction, party affiliation or religious belief have renounced and discarded racialism in all its ramifications, clearly defined their aims and objects and united in a common programme of action," Mandela wrote.
"The Charter is more than a mere list of demands for democratic reforms.
It is a revolutionary document precisely because the changes it envisages cannot be won without breaking up the economic and political set-up of present South Africa. To win the demands calls for the organisation, launching and development of mass struggles on the widest scale. They will be won and consolidated only as a result of a nation-wide campaign of agitation; through stubborn and determined mass struggles to defeat the economic and political policies of the Nationalist government; by repulsing onslaughts on the living standards and liberties of the people."
But, Mandela added, the document would be "academic and valueless" unless there existed in South African society "the requisite social forces" capable of fighting for the realisation of the Charter and whether these forces "are being mobilised and conditioned for this principal task".
"If this united front is strengthened and developed, the Freedom Charter will be transformed into a living instrument and we shall vanquish all opposition and win the South Africa of our dreams during our lifetime," he wrote.
Reading this, it is easy to see why the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) under Julius Malema revived and latched onto the slogan, adapting it to "Economic Freedom in our Lifetime". This is the theme of their road show to mobilise support among the youth, the unemployed, the poorly paid and the disenchanted. Besides the emotional ties to the "Freedom in our Lifetime" slogan, both the Freedom Charter and Mandela's article have resonance and provide an adaptable script for a revolution.
According to the socio-economic report presented at the Cosatu National Congress, unemployment in 2012 stands at 37% in the country - about 46% among black Africans. An estimated 72% of the unemployed are young people between the age of 15 and 36. South Africa lost 744,000 jobs between 2009 and 2012, the report states. It quotes the Human Development Report (2010) statistics showing 44% of workers in the country live on less than R10 a day. The statistics for the pay gap are also alarming, with estimates suggesting the top 5% of earners take 30 times what the bottom 5% do, while the executive pay gap can be up to 300 times that of workers.
There is therefore fertile ground for an economic freedom (or redistribution) campaign among the poor, the youth and the unemployed.
The Youth League's drive for nationalisation, an integral feature of the economic freedom campaign, began in earnest in 2009, at about the same time Malema's relationship with President Jacob Zuma and SACP leaders began to sour. The issue boiled over at the ANC's National General Council in September 2010 when the ANCYL forced a resolution that the ANC should investigate models and strategies for state ownership and control of mines.
From then on, the adoption of the Freedom Charter as the central political programme of the ANC and the nationalisation of mines became the ANCYL's main campaign platform. In October 2010, in the midst of the ANC's disciplinary action against him, Malema led thousands of unemployed youth in a march from the Johannesburg city centre to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. This brought national focus to the economic freedom campaign and through the large numbers of people who undertook the difficult journey, displayed that this could build into a significant national movement.
After Malema's expulsion from the ANC, he vowed to pursue the campaign for economic freedom. The Youth League, disoriented by the leadership holding pattern it has been forced into, has also continued to canvass support for nationalisation, albeit with less vigour than when Malema was at the helm.
At the ANC's policy conference in June, there was a major push for strategic nationalisation, particularly from provinces which are lobbying for leadership change at Mangaung. For this reason, the ANC initially denied that the conference had resolved to explore strategic nationalisation as it was perceived as giving in to pressure from the anti-Zuma camp. But at last week's Cosatu gathering, ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe mentioned during one of his inputs that nationalisation was in fact contained in the policy conference resolutions to be ratified at Mangaung.
But it was the Marikana massacre that really stimulated the economic freedom campaign, with Malema taking advantage of the anger of the Lonmin mineworkers to mount a road show in the mining sector to fight for higher wages - now also part of the economic freedom campaign. He is now moulding himself as something of a Robin Hood character, wanting to take from the rich to help the poor and the wretched.
After Malema appeared in court on Wednesday on a charge of money laundering, he vowed to nevertheless forge ahead with the campaign. He also used the platform outside court to lash out at Zuma and urge his supporters to work to ensure the president was not re-elected as the ANC leader in Mangaung. The Youth League has done pretty much the same thing by blending its campaign for economic freedom with its support for Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe to take over the ANC presidency in December.
On Wednesday, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, the League's candidate to replace Mantashe as ANC secretary general, said the ANCYL should not apologise for calling for economic freedom and the nationalisation of mines. Speaking at an ANCYL anniversary lecture, Mbalula said: "Some of us in the movement are even afraid to utter the words 'economic freedom in our lifetime'. What you must do comrades is to deepen your understanding of economic freedom.
"It is about total liberation and if you are not going to talk about it, who else will? Why shouldn't the youth be obsessed with economic power?" Mbalula asked.
On the face of it, who can oppose economic freedom for the masses, which would reduce poverty, unemployment and inequalities? Yet the slogan, because it is associated with Malema, has become somewhat of a swearword in the Zuma faction of the ANC.
The big problem for the ANC is that the poor, unemployed and the youth make up a large part of its constituency, and impatience with government's inability to get them out of the poverty trap is reaching dangerous levels. The rhetoric in the economic freedom campaign speaks right to this disillusioned group, which can now fall into the hands of the ANC's new archenemy.
It would therefore be interesting to see how the ANC handles the nationalisation question at Mangaung. While there is growing support in the ruling party for strategic state ownership of mines and other sectors, resolving to do so would be perceived as a victory for the economic freedom campaigners, including its champion, Julius Malema.
Right now, the ANC does not want Malema to get anything he wants in his lifetime.