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Julius Malema: South Africa’s luxury-loving radical

South Africa’s firebrand youth leader Julius Malema is a baby-faced militant whose radical, rabble-rousing rhetoric contrasts with a luxury lifestyle and love of expensive watches and cars.

His divisive and provocative remarks often land him in hot water, with a judge ruling Monday that his singing of an anti-apartheid anthem known as “shoot the white farmer” constituted hate speech.

Malema revels in such controversy, feeding the caricature among his critics that he is a dangerous, uncontrollable buffoon.

But the 30-year-old’s short political career has already established him as a force to be reckoned with, as he harnesses the frustrations of millions of South Africa’s poor who feel they have yet to taste the fruits of democracy.

The African National Congress (ANC) Youth League leader helped sweep President Jacob Zuma to power three years ago but his ties with the man he once vowed to kill for are increasingly bitter.

The party has long tolerated his outbursts, but the final straw for the ANC was his call for regime change in neighbouring Botswana. That landed him before a disciplinary hearing, which continue this week, on charges of sowing divisions and bringing the party into disrepute.

The slapdown by Nelson Mandela’s former anti-apartheid movement signals Malema’s biggest political gamble to date, adding to his woes as police investigate claims of shady business dealings.

Born to a domestic worker in 1981, Malema grew up poor in northern Limpopo and burst into politics as a popular media performer with a gift for headline-grabbing quotes.

Having already provoked alarm among whites and business, his unruliness is now a worry to the ANC as its internal jockeying increases ahead of leadership elections next year with the powerful youth league no longer favouring Zuma.

Malema wants South Africa to nationalise its banks and mines and seize land without compensation to hand to poor blacks.

His declarations have forced the government to repeatedly state that they are are not official policy.

Malema has also labelled whites criminals and outraged rights groups for suggesting Zuma’s rape accuser, in a case dismissed in 2006, had enjoyed herself, having stayed for breakfast and requesting taxi money.

But with supporters like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the controversial former wife of the country’s beloved first democratic president, Malema has appeared politically untouchable — until now.

His power lies in his poor black audience which has been left in the shadows of South Africa’s freedom and to whose frustrations he speaks to with promises of redistribution of wealth.

But “Juju”, as he is often called, lives in a style that has little to do with the poor people he defends.

He is a lover of beautiful clothes, watches, fast cars and big houses. He lives in a posh Johannesburg suburb, with political cartoons sketching him with an oversized Breitling watch worth some 250,000 rands ($35,000, 25,000 euros).

“One of the things I’ve learnt in my short life in politics is the ability to live in the conditions of capitalism while fighting it and defeating it,” he said earlier this year, dismissing any wrongdoing.

But his lifestyle has drawn the attention of authorities who are now investigating if he earned kickbacks from oiling tenders for government contracts.