Alex Duval Smith: Self-styled spokesman for the poor will be back

For now, he would be happy to be premier of Limpopo Province and to concentrate on getting rich

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Aged only 30, Julius Malema will, of course, be back. If he plays his cards right, he will return as the spokesman of the poor, who was right all along – right about the harmful effects of the lingering apartheid economy, right about the lack of trickle-down, right about mines, banks and whites.

The son of a Limpopo domestic worker, he says he joined the African National Congress when he was nine years old. His recent, steady rise through the party has been dependent on President Jacob Zuma who had spotted his talent for pulling a crowd and used him to oust Thabo Mbeki.

Throughout the ANC's past, the Youth League has been a central player and kingmaker. Mr Malema knows his ANC history well enough to quote former Youth League president Nelson Mandela, calling for the nationalisation of mines in 1944. The league defined the liberation party's visibility during the anti-apartheid era, including the 1976 Soweto riots. In post-apartheid South Africa, it acts as the guardian of the ANC's revolutionary rhetoric, a role Mr Malema understood well.

He also realised that after campaigning energetically for President Zuma ahead of the 2009 elections, it would be wise to move away from his mentor and prove that their fates are not intimately linked.

The columnist Sipho Hlongwane believes Mr Malema is in no hurry to make his mark on the political scene. "He does not want to be President of the country. For now, he would be happy to be premier of Limpopo Province and to concentrate on getting rich. He can always be President later."

Whatever path he chooses, the clever young politician has already laid the foundations of a political career that he can pick up again. This became clear when he emerged from the first day of his disciplinary hearing wearing a beret, Che-style.

His ostentatious lifestyle has been rubbished by his critics and given as proof that he does not really care about the poor. But he lives only as extravagantly as many others in the ANC – a party that is supposed to want "a better life for all", according to its own slogan.

Using conservative measures, one-quarter of the population is unemployed and two-thirds of the jobless are under 35. Even in the year leading to the 2010 World Cup, 959,000 jobs were lost, according to the Congress of South African Trade Unions. The drop-out rate before Matric (A-levels) is 64 per cent. And according to a 2007 survey, 11 per cent of South Africans are "sometimes or always hungry".

So really, all Mr Malema needs to do is get his comeback timing right.

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