ON BEING expelled from the African National Congress (ANC) Julius Malema has since established the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). But it is worth taking a trip back in time, to April 2008, when Malema was first elected ANC Youth League president because his election had all the telltale signs of the chaos that would come to define him, and the problems that would lead to his expulsion.

In the end there were just 187 votes in it — that was all the difference between Malema becoming a household name and being a forgotten also-ran.

Here, then, is a retrospective look at the youth league’s 2008 elective conference as told by South Africa’s media.

Setting the scene

On Wednesday April 2, 2008 thousands of youth league delegates met in Mangaung, in the Free State, to convene a five-day elective congress (the ANC Youth League’s 23rd), the primary purpose of which was to elect a new president.

The outgoing president was Fikile Mbalula.

Some 3,643 delegates were formally registered to vote at the congress and they broke down as follows:

• Eastern Cape – 623

• Free State – 319

• Gauteng – 381

• KwaZulu-Natal – 607

• Limpopo – 671

• Mpumalanga – 330

• North West – 354

• Northern Cape – 171

• Western Cape – 187

• Provincial Executive Committees – 146

• National Executive Committee – 27

There had been other candidates but, by the time the congress arrived, the race had boiled down to Limpopo’s Malema, the Free State’s Saki Mofokeng, who also worked as the ANC Youth League’s national organiser and Songezo Mjongile, who only really enjoyed support from his home province, the Western Cape, and who was expected to fall out and not be nominated.

There was not too much to separate the two main candidates — "small boy" Malema (27) and "the pensioner" Mofokeng (34) as each opposing faction labelled the other.

Both had supported Zuma in his Polokwane election battle with former ANC president Thabo Mbeki and there was little between them ideologically.

But Malema was a zealot in a way Mofokeng was not and the fervency of his support for Zuma, along with what that seemed to represent, set him apart.

Either way, it was acknowledged that the new president would be somewhat different to the outgoing, leftist Mbalula, with one of Malema’s own supporters saying: "It is true there is no left candidate in the presidential race. It is true the ANC Youth League will be led by a successful businessman," before adding, "But not even the R1.2m tender Julius’s consortium won in December influenced his principles."

The run-up to the congress had been marked both by political infighting between the two leading candidates and organisational disarray within the youth league itself. The Gauteng congress, for example, had its elective result nullified after it was found that "many of the delegates that had voted were not legitimate (voters)".

As far as the mudslinging went, the day before the congress (April 1) The Citizen ran a story in which it was alleged by unnamed sources that Mofokeng was corrupt and had been rigging branch audits and aborting regional councils which might vote against him. It was typical of the kinds of accusations that had been thrown about prior to the congress. The youth league itself refused to comment on the issue, although Zizi Kodwa, the youth league’s spokesman, significantly, had already pledged his support for Malema.

The combination of these two issues meant a rather tense scene had been set but on the day, the ANC Youth League was determined to put its best foot forward.

Kodwa told the media that the squabbling was not important because the congress would put "issues of political content" front and centre and that, "the leader who will be elected is one that will complement the endorsed programmes and policy matters at the congress". Remember that quote.

Rhetoric and retribution

The first day of the congress passed without much fuss.

Fikile Mbalula who, like Kodwa, had expressed support for Malema, used his outgoing speech to launch an attack on University of South Africa vice-chancellor Barney Pityana in response to his various criticisms of Zuma, implicitly establishing loyalty to Zuma as the primary theme for the congress.

He was followed by Zuma himself, still riding his Polokwane wave, the main speaker for the day. Re-enforcing the message delivered by Mbalula, Zuma thanked the youth league for its political support for his cause: "I would like to thank the youth league for being among those who actively backed the resolution of the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) and National General Council to support (me) as I was being taken to court at different times.

"They practically demonstrated the true meaning of comradeship and a commitment to the supremacy of the country’s constitution. It went down well for the future of the country that young people fought for respect of the rule of law, the right to human dignity and the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty."

But Zuma, the catalyst behind so much turmoil in the ANC, was the touchstone that caused all that underlying tension to manifest into something more tangible. The run-up and the behaviour of delegates on the floor had been disruptive and fraught all day, now it became more palpable. At one point Zuma was forced to break from his prepared notes to call the congress to order, stating: "I am worried that we are adopting a culture that is not our culture. We must conduct ourselves with dignity and discipline."

His aside was not without good cause. In a story titled Chaos rules the roost, the Times described the response to Zuma’s speech as follows: "Delegates disrupted proceedings with loud chanting, refused to obey directives against campaigning for their ‘presidential’ candidates inside the hall — and interrupted speakers, including ANC President Jacob Zuma."

It got so bad, if not embarrassing, that ANC Western Cape provincial secretary Mncedisi Skwatsha was reported to have stated the youth league congress would make Polokwane, "look like a picnic".

Little did he know.

All this tension, bickering and animosity was starting to have an affect on the congress’s programme. Initially elections were scheduled for the evening of day 2 — Thursday — but by Friday night they had still not taken place and were later rescheduled for Saturday. Only the youth league’s political and organisational reports had been dealt with; long, dreary affairs that seemed only to fuel the latent hostility — so much so, that by Friday evening supporters for Malema and Mofokeng had resorted to physically attacking each other.

From the Saturday Star:

"The situation got out of hand yesterday, with delegates going further than the mere singing of derogatory songs about each other and waving placards of their preferred candidates in each other’s faces. Tempers boiled over and some rival delegates began throwing plastic water bottles at each other while others shoved each other and traded blows."

At the heart of it, the battle between Malema and Mofokeng. Business Day would later offer up the following description of events on the floor:

"In a graphic display of loyalties Malema’s supporters created a mock coffin in Mofokeng’s name and in retaliation Mofokeng’s supporter’s ‘baptised’ one of their own on the conference floor, saying that he had ‘seen the light’." — The Star reported the coffin was draped in the South African flag and had on it the words, Rest in Peace Saki.

Kodwa would later reveal that a group of unhappy — and by all accounts illegitimate — members, angry at having been refused accreditation, had attacked the youth league’s registration centre late on Friday night and vandalised property.

The two ingredients for all this discontent were now working in perfect harmony, a vicious circle where political partisanship was allowed to fester as poor organisation meant the planned programme fell further and further behind schedule. The more disorder, the more disorganisation; the more disorganisation, the more disorder.

Writing for the Weekender, Hajra Omarjee explained how organisational disorder had created the perfect environment for things to become volatile:

"Youth league spokesperson Zizi Kodwa tried to make sense of the chaos, saying the delays were unavoidable. He said that because of the leadership contest, it was important that voting delegates were properly authenticated to ensure the legitimacy of the ballot. With nothing much going on, it was left for the delegates to continue campaigning and lobbying for the candidates."

Idle hands are the devil’s plaything, the saying goes. And all that tension simmering below the surface, occasionally spitting out, was about to violently bubble over.

Late-night mischief

The weekend, days 4 and 5, saw things escalate further. (Day 5 was not supposed to take place at all, but as things unravelled, the congress was extended by a day.)

At one stage, police had to be called in to quell what congress organisers called a "volatile" situation. Struggle songs had turned to war chants; exchanges on the floor become heated verbal battles and the uncontrolled noise often become so loud, speakers simply could not be heard. And, as the tension become palpable, so the organisational chaos began to spiral in turn.

Senior NEC member Nyami Booi was forced to withdraw from the congress’s electoral committee after several complaints had been made that he had been campaigning in favour of Malema.

He would be replaced by former youth league President Malusi Gigaba.

In response, Malema’s supporters had Mofokeng removed as the convener of credentials after an emergency meeting on the sidelines and replaced with outgoing treasurer-general Phumezo Mqingwana.

But that kind of tit-for-tat politicking was quickly being usurped by far bigger and more fundamental problems.

By the close of business in day 4, the congress had not yet begun to discuss one of its core functions: policy decisions. And Kodwa’s undertaking on day 1, that the new leader would represent new congress policies, seemed less and less likely; if only because the congress wasn’t going to adopt any policies. By Saturday night, these proceeding had still not begun as the league’s outgoing NEC was behind closed doors in crisis management meeting trying to resolve a huge dispute over credentials.

Kodwa would tell the press: "Our main problem was that the number of people captured did not tally with the number of delegates we have. We seem to have more people in the conference with tags than the number we have in the system."

Inside and outside the conference the ANC leadership and those outgoing members of the youth league were falling over themselves to apologise for the disorder.

ANC Deputy President Kgalema Mothlanthe, who addressed the congress on the Saturday, offered what he called "constructive criticism at the state of disorder that apparently characterised this conference". In turn, Mbalula apologised to the people of South Africa for the "uncouth and unrepentant" conduct of youth league members.

When all was said and done, some 557 bogus delegates were disqualified.

But things would get worse.

Although voting did eventually manage to take place on the Sunday, by this stage antagonisms were so high the electoral committee was forced to convene almost permanently behind closed doors to discuss a wide range of complaints against the voting procedure. Delegates had voted till as late as 3am.

A great many complained they were unable to vote at all such was the extent of the poor organisation at polling stations.

When the results were eventually made public on April 8, some six days after the conference was convened, Malema was declared the winner by the small margin of 187 votes (1,883 to 1,696 votes). Only Malema and Mofokeng had been nominated from the floor.

The Star described the announcement as follows:

"When Malema’s election was announced, his supporters led him shoulder-high to the podium. In an apparent gesture of support, Mofokeng’s backers stood up and clapped, while outgoing president Fikile Mbalula hugged Malema, before triumphantly hoisting his hand in the air."

And the violence and disruption that had broken out earlier resurfaced as if to usher in Malema too. Mbalula had to be escorted out as delegates threw chairs at him in protest against the result.

Late on Monday, after the election results had been made public, a decision was taken to postpone the congress and adjourn (but not conclude) proceedings. The congress had simply run out of time. The various results — and the myriad complaints that accompanied them — would be referred to the ANC NEC, which would decide the way forward. The irregularities seemed to be substantial: a number of provincial leaders, who had also acted as observers, had refused to sign off on the ballot; they cited various reasons including the hostile environment. With regards to the congress itself, the youth congress resolved that a special conference be called to, among other things, elect the organisation’s national executive committee and discuss policy, both of which had not been dealt with.

That special congress was later held in June 2008 and the election results would be confirmed.

The aftermath

Reflecting on the chaos at the youth congress, South African editors were not kind. And, to their credit, they read much into the behaviour of youth league members at the congress and what that meant for the future of the organisation under Malema.

Of the various editorials, the most positive was the Sowetan, which argued that the new leadership offered "hope to the South African youth", although it did suggest the bickering be resolved. The Cape Times was less complimentary, saying there was little evidence of "respect for democracy" at the congress saying that the league now had a duty to "install a new culture of respect for other people’s opinions".

The Volksblad said the conference was bad news for South Africans and called for decisive steps to be taken against those that had behaved so appallingly. The Daily News asked, tongue in cheek, "what is the youth coming to?" before arguing that the whole process put "a question mark as to whether the youth understand democracy and its responsibilities?" The Independent on Saturday said that the behaviour of the youth filled them with apprehension and the Mail & Guardian bemoaned the "worrying political culture" evidenced at the congress.

But perhaps the final word should be left to the Business Day which had perhaps the most insightful opinion of them all:

"The ANC and its structures cannot continue to function like this and if the party does not open up its elections then other forces will do it for them. The two ANC Youth League candidates, for example, are both in business and both live daily with the forces of the market. This will increasingly be the case and it is unlikely that ANC leaders such as them will be able to live schizophrenic lives — as businessmen and women in an open economy and as politicians in a Stalinist twilight."

• Van Onselen is on leave until October 7. A version of this column originally ran on his website, Inside Politics.