Julius Malema: South Africa's Enfant Terrible

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.

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."