Julius Malema: South Africa’s Enfant Terrible

The ANC ousted the youth leader for speaking out against his elders. But are the youth tired of him, too?

Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images
Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

The ruling by South Africa’s African National Congress last week to expel its rebellious youth leader sounded like the refrain of an exasperated parent: Julius Malema “has shown no remorse; is not prepared to be disciplined,” read the statement from the 100-year-old political party most famously led by Nelson Mandela.

And with that, by stripping him of his job and party membership, South Africa’s ruling party seemed to end the political career of its Youth League president.

Or maybe not.

Malema responded with typical brio: “I will die with my boots on.”

No one — least of all the 31-year-old leader — denies that Malema is a militant who delights in challenging authority, which is what got him expelled on Feb. 29. He often sports a black beret, calls himself a revolutionary and speaks almost nostalgically of the “struggle” — though critics point out that he was 9 years old when Mandela walked out of prison.

Mandela is a founding member of the Youth League, which was launched in the 1940s to organize black youths in South Africa against apartheid, but also as a sort of training ground for future leaders and as a semi-independent forum for politically active people between the ages of 14 and 35. In modern South Africa, it’s also a vital avenue for up-and-comers to work their way up within the ANC, which is dominated at higher levels by apartheid-era figures.

Malema, who took the post in 2008, is best known for his reconciliation policies. However, in many ways he seems to want nothing of the sort — he has twice been convicted for hate speech, once for singing an apartheid-era struggle song, “Kill the Boers,” which advocates the killing of white farmers.

But with this rhetoric and energy, Malema has tapped into a vein. Nearly two decades after the end of apartheid, the country remains racially unbalanced with regard to power and wealth.

Malema has roused powerful sentiment and challenged a government that, for all its successes, faces legitimate complaints that it has failed to meet some South Africans’ most basic needs. Many slum dwellers in the nation of 50 million still lack services like running water and electricity. Malema himself lives in one of Johannesburg’s ritzier suburbs.

More than a third of South Africans are under the age of 25. This generation — called the “born frees” because few remember the oppression of apartheid — is dismally underemployed, with a staggering seven out of eight (pdf) out of work, according to government statistics.