Few countries have politics as dramatic as South Africa’s and politicians as controversial as Julius Malema. A powerful former head of the African National Congress’ Youth Wing, he was instrumental in organising President Jacob Zuma’s rise to power in 2009 following a meteoric political rise. He is also a deeply divisive figure in the country’s public life, advocating bold measures to empower its majority black population, such as the nationalisation of mines (a measure that has been rejected by the government) and the redistribution of land without compensation. He has also been a supporter of Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe and has previously called for regime change in democratic Botswana. Malema is a fiery speaker who appeals to many with a cocktail of populist policy and appealing to racial identity in a deeply divided society.
To his followers, many of whom come from South Africa’s vast number of unemployed youth, he is a principled advocate of black empowerment. However to others, especially many of South Africa’s middle class, he is a demagogue who plays the politics of division and resentment. He has come under intense scrutiny in the past few years for hate speech. One notable example was in 2010, when he was caught singing the lyrics ‘shoot the Boer’, from the old anti-Apartheid song Ayasab’amagwala (‘The Crowds are Scared’). Since ‘Boer’ is a term often considered synonymous with white people, this was seen as a provocative move by Afrikaner farmers.
In April this year, Malema was expelled from the ANC for bringing the party into disrepute and calling President Zuma a ‘dictator’. Since then, he has become one of the fiercest critics of the embattled President and maintained his strong following. Malema has publicly lambasted Zuma for incompetence and ignoring the plight of black South Africans. He has come to particular prominence in the past few weeks in the wake of the Marikana strikes, where 34 miners were shot dead by police during protests. Using a memorial service for the dead to criticise the government’s actions during the strike and rally his own base by reiterating his support for the nationalisation of mines. Malema boldly stated that ‘The democratically elected government has turned on its people’. The tactic mostly worked: Government ministers attending the service left heckled by the crowd.
Malema’s relationship the government was further tarnished by an arrest warrant issued for him on charges of fraud, money laundering and corruption. Particular attention was paid to alleged profiteering from government contracts by Malema and his supporters in the former’s power base of Limpopo. Malema’s supporters have claimed that this is a fix by President Zuma, who is likely to want his former protégé out of the way before the ANC’s leadership vote in December where he is likely to face stiff opposition. Although it is very unlikely that Malema wants the Presidency itself (yet), his continued attacks on Zuma have the potential to strengthen the hands of the latter’s rivals. A high unemployment rate of 25.5%, slow growth and concerns about corruption and incompetence in government have all weakened the President. It is unlikely that he used the police force to conveniently dispose of Malema, but the matter has done nothing to quell dissent within the ANC.
Ultimately, it will be up to the courts to decide Malema’s innocence or guilt. Yet regardless of the verdict, it is more than likely he will continue to be a forceful and controversial player in South African politics. The support base he has been able to create will not go away soon, even if he is declared guilty. It is symptomatic of the deep inequality that still exists in South African society, particularly amongst a black working class that feels it has not benefited enough from the end of Apartheid. As long as the ANC continues to provide insufficient answers to the country’s pressing problems of unemployment and poverty, Malema and those like him will continue to enjoy a captive audience.