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Julius Malema: enfant terrible of South Africa’s ANC

Published on 01/03/2012

Julius Malema was once a rising star in South African politics, but his refusal to toe the party line may have shattered his career after his expulsion from the mighty African National Congress.

He will remain the head of the ANC Youth League until he exhausts his appeals, a process that could take the rest of the year, but the ANC’s extraordinary decision Wednesday to boot him out has left him on a course toward political wilderness.

Since being elected Youth League president in 2008, Malema has stirred controversy with his racially charged rhetoric that has forced the nation to confront its gaping economic divide that remains apartheid’s most enduring legacy.

From his revival of an anti-apartheid song that exhorts listeners to “shoot the white farmer”, for which he was found guilty of hate speech in a civil case last year, to his calls for white-owned land to be seized and given to poor blacks, Malema is never far from the headlines.

The 30-year-old revels in such controversy, feeding the caricature among critics that he is a dangerous and uncontrollable buffoon.

During his short political career, he has claimed to speak for the frustrated millions of poor South Africans for whom democracy has yet to bring better living conditions.

The ANC and President Jacob Zuma long tolerated his outbursts — and, some observers said, used them to divert attention from the lack of progress on eradicating inequality since the end of apartheid in 1994.

But the final straw was Malema’s praise for former president Thabo Mbeki as a better leader than arch-rival Zuma and his call to oust the democratically elected government of neighbouring Botswana.

Those statements landed him in a disciplinary hearing on charges of sowing divisions in the ruling party and bringing it into disrepute.

The slapdown by Nelson Mandela’s former anti-apartheid movement has added to Malema’s woes as police investigate business dealings.

Born to a domestic worker in 1981, Malema grew up poor in the northern province of Limpopo.

His power lies in his poor black audience, left in the shadows of South Africa’s freedom and to whose frustrations he speaks with promises to nationalise mines and banks and redistribute the country’s wealth.

But “Juju”, as he is often called, lives in a style that has little to do with those whose cause he champions.

He is a lover of designer clothes, fast cars and big houses. He lives in an upmarket Johannesburg suburb, and is famous for his Breitling watch worth some 250,000 rand ($32,000, 23,000 euros).

His lifestyle has drawn the attention of authorities who are now investigating whether he earned kickbacks by oiling tenders for government contracts.

Having already provoked alarm among whites and foreign investors, his unruliness finally became too much for the ANC itself as internal jockeying increases ahead of party elections in December.

Malema’s backing helped Zuma oust Mbeki as party leader and sweep to power three years ago. But his ties with the man for whom he once vowed to kill grew increasingly bitter.

His backers made it clear Zuma had fallen from the Youth League’s grace by burning his picture on the first day of Malema’s disciplinary hearing, when hundreds of supporters clashed with police outside party headquarters.

Malema also outraged rights groups for suggesting a woman who accused Zuma of rape, in a case dismissed in 2006, had a “nice time”, and for referring to Indians as “coolies”.

Now seen as an obstacle to Zuma’s re-election drive, the ANC wants to cut Malema loose. But it won’t be able to escape the complex issues that he raised.