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

Youth League member Tendani Asaph, 24, said that he agreed with Malema’s policies but supported his expulsion. Malema “was raising genuine issues,” said Asaph, also the president of the University of Johannesburg’s student representative council. “For the mere fact that he went out and started lambasting the members of the ANC … that’s where he went wrong.”

Asaph added that he agreed with the expulsion because of Malema’s persistent challenges to the ANC and its leadership. “If they didn’t discipline Julius, I think each and every leader after Julius would do the same,” he said.

Antoinette Tekane, 24, who works at a clothing shop, questioned his credibility but said he’d made valid points not raised by the older ANC. But “if the guy is spending $2 million to build a house, how can he speak for the poor?” said Tekane, who lives in the sprawling Soweto township.

Street vendor Hlubi Thokozane, 28, was even more blunt. “He deserves it,” he said of Malema’s expulsion as he set up a makeshift table bearing sweets and cigarettes at a bus stop. “He has a point, but he doesn’t speak very well.”

Malema’s legacy, and prospects, remain uncertain. He calls himself a “black diamond” and is as multifaceted — and as unreadable.

He has made some controversial recommendations, including that South Africa nationalize its mines as neighboring Zimbabwe has done, with disastrous results. He has also said that the nation should confiscate white-owned farmland and redistribute it to black farmers. Again, Zimbabwe got there first, in 2000, and analysts say that is what sent that nation’s economy into a downward spiral.

Malema has been disciplined twice in two years for breaches of party discipline. He faces a separate corruption trial — and possible jail time — over charges that he exploited his influence to help others get government contracts. He also said last year that the ANC should support regime change in neighboring Botswana.

Then there’s that other hate-speech conviction — for publicly joking about rape.

On the other hand, he has also played a pivotal political role by mobilizing young voters for the ANC and is widely credited with helping bring President Jacob Zuma to power in 2009. Since then he has criticized the 69-year-old president at nearly every turn, one of the reasons he was initially disciplined.

Malema has been given two weeks to appeal his expulsion for spreading disunity in the party. The Youth League has said that it will also appeal his expulsion and will try to maintain its ties with him.

Analyst and journalist Philip De Wet says that Malema may try to find a way to keep his ANC membership, and with it some influence. “He seems to have given up trying to hang on to leadership within the Youth League, at least for the time being, in return for not being kicked out as an ANC member, which still gives him a platform,” he said. “Even he is saying at this point that for at least two or three years, he’s out of the game.”

Another possibility, De Wet says, is that he could take that time to grow up. He compared Malema to his predecessor, sports minister Fikile Mbalula.

“Mbalula was quite a firebrand himself, quite a loose cannon,” he said. “He has now become the suit-wearing, respectable minister. It has happened before. So it could happen again.”