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Julius Malema: The firebrand shaking up South Africa’s old guard

Once a rising star of the ANC, Malema is now proving to be a major electoral headache for his former party, with policies that include the redistribution of white-owned farmland. Paul Martin met him briefly at a rally in Pretoria

“This is a revolution. It is not a bed of roses – it is a struggle between the future and the past,” booms the voicemail recording when you phone the private mobile number of Julius Malema, whose militant entry into the South African electoral fray has evoked fury from the ruling African National Congress and elicited trepidation among businesses, international investors and most of the once-dominant white community.

The rhetoric on his phone voicemail message continues: “We have refused to submit, but have chosen to fight for the economic freedom of our people.” He then bizarrely combines a phrase from a peace song by Joan Baez with a slogan from the Cuban or Mozambican revolution by concluding: “We shall overcome. Salute!”

With voters going to the polls tomorrow, Mr Malema, the self-styled “Commander-in-Chief” of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), could soon be the leader of a party with between 20 and 40 seats in the country’s 400-member parliament, according to most analysts, as well as capture higher proportions of votes in the northern areas wracked by platinum miners’ strikes.

Malema is tapping in to a rich vein of militancy that once was encouraged by his erstwhile party, the ANC (AFP)

He raised the level of vitriol among the miners when he went to Rustenburg just after police shot dead 34 miners in a violent clash in 2012, while his chief adversary, President Jacob Zuma, stayed away. Coachloads of striking miners and their families were bussed in for last week’s EFF rallies.

Malema, highly improbably, insists he will win at least 51 per cent of the votes and will then stride into parliament still wearing his red tracksuit and red beret, will do away with state-delivered cars for ministers or for himself, will nationalise the mining industry, and will arrange for the state to confiscate (without compensation) most of the white-owned farms so they can be redistributed.

Though he has saluted Zimbabwe’s land-grabbing President Robert Mugabe before, he says whites need not fear as there will be no Zimbabwe-style land invasions. It will all be done according to the law – that is, the law his party forces through parliament. He told The Independent that whites should actually welcome the move as “most whites do not own farms, so they too can get some land”.

He has other policies that he is sure will win him votes from a cross-section of South Africans. He has paid for huge billboards on several of South Africa’s motorways, promising to “physically remove” the tollbooths and roadside cameras that have just begun demanding fees from drivers on many of the country’s high-quality network of expensive-to-maintain highways. Repeating that promise in his party’s television and radio advertisements led to their being banned by the state-run national broadcaster as incitements to violence.

That ruling served as a platform for a march last week on the national television buildings – which in turn provided a surge in pre-election publicity. There, from a makeshift platform around his campaign bus, he launched into a barrage of threats and taunts at the ANC establishment – of which Malema was a part until his expulsion in 2011.

Election analysts say he has achieved phenomenal media penetration, despite being derided in ANC propaganda as a “young upstart”. Radical and militant he may be, but he is not even pretending to be one of the poor he champions. After a rally last week, his militants flanked his white Mercedes with its darkened windows as their Commander-in-Chief headed home to his luxury villa in Pretoria, followed by a car full of red-bereted ladies. Coach after coach whisked the loyalists away. One told me: “Julius will get us the farms and the wealth from those whites.” As I headed for my car he pursued me to state: “I mean to say, from those greedy whites. Not all whites are greedy.”

Refusing in advance an unimaginable offer from the ANC to join it as a union coalition partner, Malema is not obliged to implement these policies. Merely stating them and then winning some parliamentary seats is likely, though, to weaken the rand and add to local jitters. Calling his movement “radical and militant”, Malema is tapping in to a rich vein of militancy that once was encouraged by his erstwhile party, the ANC. Even as state-provided housing for the poor and widespread electrification has raised living standards for  many of the underprivileged, the rich-poor gap has widened over the 20 years the ANC has been in power, and unemployment has increased to nearly 40 per cent.

Besides his own lifestyle, Malema faces serious challenges. The tax authorities say he owes them 16m rand (£900,000); he has been in court for hate speech; and he faces embezzlement charges – all of which he said were politically motivated. He once said no-one could destroy him as, like a cat, he has nine lives. He has also been inspired by and supported by another radical populist, Winnie Mandela.

Despite her kidnapping conviction and her misuse of party funds, she remains on the ANC national executive, and has not asked voters to back Malema. But she need not make her support overt. When she attended a huge ANC rally in Soweto on Saturday, its 95,000 crowd dwarfing what Malema’s EFF could draw in Witbank or Pretoria last week, she wore black – maintaining she was still in mourning for her divorced husband, Nelson, but perhaps carrying a different message.

When leader of the ANC’s Youth League, Malema warned that if Mrs Mandela were convicted of fraud and embezzlement, his cadres would burn down the prison to get her out. In return, when Malema faced hate speech charges, she sat with him in court.

“He is my product,” she claimed at the time. “His rebellious attitude is part of the process of growing up. He will make a great leader one day.”

Most of her party, and almost all white people in South Africa, hope not.