The outspoken leader of the ANC youth league marched his supporters to the centre of economic power in South Africa yesterday, in a show of force before his possible expulsion from the ruling party.
Julius Malema who will find out next week what action an ANC disciplinary committee will take against him, led a thousand-strong band of protestors to Johannesburg stock exchange and the chamber of mines as part of an escalating conflict with president Jacob Zuma.
Borrowing the language of past ANCYL leader, Nelson Mandela, he billed the protest which will move on today to the parliament in Pretoria as the “long walk to economic freedom”. His critics, who are legion, dismissed the stunt as “Malema's march” and accused him of playing personal politics with explosive economic and racial divisions which still scar South Africa.
The 30 year old serial controversialist, whose support was instrumental in Mr Zuma's taking the helm of the ANC, has turned on the president recently and routinely embarrassed the leadership with populist statements on everything from regime change in Botswana to the nationalization of mines. The result has been another disciplinary hearing which could lead to suspension or expulsion from the ANC for a man who claims to be giving a voice to South Africa's downtrodden black majority.
A heavy police presence flanked the route yesterday after youth league supporters rioted at a similar gathering in August throwing stones at police, attacking journalists and burning posters of President Zuma.
The man known to most South Africans as “Juju” led chants of "Down with white monopoly capital!" outside the chamber of mines while his supporters sang the anti-apartheid anthem “Shoot the Boer” – which has been ruled by the courts as hate speech.
The ANCYL leader has terrified white farmers by demanding their land be taken without compensation and shaken investors with calls for 60 per cent of the country's huge mining sector to be taken over by the state. He has also won a powerbase in the left wing of the ruling party that positions him as a possible kingmaker when Mr Zuma seeks a second term as head of the ANC at a party conference next year.
The president's own political fortunes remain in the balance as graft allegations over a notorious arms deal more than a decade ago have resurfaced. A new inquiry order by Mr Zuma himself last month will have the power to subpoena him and his predecessor Thabo Mbeki to answer allegations over the $3.7bn purchase of military equipment in the 1990s. The new probe has been ordered to distract attention from a more hostile investigation, according to analysts, but the renewed attention on dodgy deals by its leaders could stir popular anger at the ANC. Both men deny the allegations.
Tsholofelo Stephina Bester a young mother protesting yesterday said the ruling party leaders must make good on broken promises.
"I want them not to promise without delivering," she told the Associated Press. "I want them to deliver."
Early estimates of the number of marchers suggested that the march had fallen short of the 5,000 target set by organisers, although reports by the end of the day put the number at between 2,000 and 5,000.
Makashule Gana, the youth leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance said the poor turnout - only a few thousand of the city's 600,000 youth – was because the march was more about infighting in the ANC than unemployment and inequality.
“There are those who are using the march to fight their own battles in the ANC,” he said. “They have hijacked the plight of the young to advance their own political power.”
The son of a housemaid who has become known for champagne parties and luxury cars, Mr Malema has been accused by local outlet City Press of running a slush fund with bribe money to fund his lifestyle, allegations he denies. He has accused his critics of racism saying that the country's economic spoils shouldn't be confined to the country's white minority.
Frans Cronje, the deputy chief executive of the South African Institute of Race Relation relations, said Mr Malema was an “extremely divisive” figure who was exploiting racial fault lines for personal power. A recent report by the institute found that a decade-and-a-half after the end of Apartheid youth unemployment stands at 50 percent and that half of those aged between 25-24 would never find work.
The outcome of the disciplinary hearing, expected on 3 November, would “tell us a great deal about the balance of power inside the ANC,” said Mr Cronje.