Paul Vallely: Just what South Africa doesn't need

Julius Malema is a charismatic, reckless firebrand who wants to seize white-owned land...and he just might do it

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If you have not heard of Julius Malema you should have. The international business magazine Forbes last week named the 30-year-old as one of Africa's 10 most powerful young men. Next week he could tear apart South Africa's ruling party, possibly bringing about the downfall of the president Jacob Zuma, in a battle for the soul of the nation which could ripple through the continent and beyond.

Malema is the president of the youth wing of the African National Congress. In the days before they fell out, Zuma described him as a future president of South Africa. But now the populist firebrand – who has won wide support among the poor with his calls to nationalise the mines and seize white-owned land – is to appear before the ANC's disciplinary committee charged with bringing the party into disrepute.

Zuma's authority is on the line. If he fails, the nation which has so successfully made a peaceful transition from white to black rule could be plunged into political chaos.

Malema is a throwback to the worst stereotypes of African leaders. He is charismatic, populist and reckless. He has fits of temper, will not tolerate dissent and manipulates elections. He is shamelessly racist. He defends the human rights record of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. He has attacked Chinese investors as people who "bring nothing to the country". He is being investigated by three separate authorities on allegations of corruption.

His plans for the overhaul of the economy to benefit the poor, by expropriating white businesses – and his leadership last year of a delegation to Venezuela to study the country's nationalisation programme – have sent shivers through the international community. So much so that South Africa's share of foreign direct investment has fallen 70 per cent in the past two years.

In the past, doubts have been raised about Jacob Zuma, who was also seen as a corrupt and misogynistic populist. But by comparison with Malema he looks a model of statesmanship and macroeconomic seriousness. It is as if South Africa is on some terrible downward leadership trajectory from Mandela to Mbkei to Zuma to Malema.

The sight of Malema supporters burning Zuma T-shirts last week bodes ill for the leadership elections of the ruling party next year. Whoever is elected will become South Africa's president after 2014.

Once Malema steered his supporters to secure the election of President Zuma. But the two men have fallen out to such an extent that last July, Malema appeared before an ANC disciplinary body charged with sowing divisions in the party. He was threatened with suspension if he reoffended within two years.

He has since breached the conditions imposed by, among other things, calling for the overthrow of the democratically elected government of neighbouring Botswana which he has accused of being a "puppet" of "imperialist" Western powers. Last week Malema was convicted of inciting racial hatred by routinely singing an old apartheid-era song containing the line Shoot the Boer accompanied by juvenile machinegun actions while singing.

Malema's response to the verdict was revealing. The judge, who was white, said that in post-apartheid South Africa, all citizens must treat each other equally. He urged the ANC to find new ways of celebrating its past which did not threaten social harmony. Malema riposted that it was not for a white man to tell blacks how to remember their history.

"Once again we find ourselves subjected to white minority approval. Apartheid is being brought through the back door," he said. "We have reached a time," he added, when "we must place the oppressor where he belongs." The court system must be reformed, he said.

So is it just a bully-boy threat? Or is there something legitimate to the notion that economic and social vested interests are subverting democratic progress in South Africa?

One of Malema's more thoughtful supporters, Gugu Ndima, aged 26, wrote this week: "We still live in a highly divided society, one polarised by unemployment, poverty and tacit racism – a society in which one formation uses state and academic institutions to protect and preserve its existence and supremacy."

To Ndima, who is a communist, Shoot the Boer is now a cry for "dismantling a system of white monopoly capital". The down-trodden masses intuitively understand that the song today "speaks of the fight against a system that still preserves an unequal socio-economic status quo for the benefit of a minority elite." To them South Africa's celebrated "rainbow nation" is more of a myth and aspiration than a reality.

Malema understands this too. That is not to say that he is not a rogue and an opportunist. His racism is overt; when a white BBC journalist challenged him at a news conference last year, Malema shouted that he was a "bloody agent" with a "white tendency," and pointed to the reporter's crotch, making disparaging remarks about his manhood. Malema knows that kind of thing plays well with his supporters.

So, too, does his extravagant lifestyle, his swish cars and flashy watches and his eight properties including an Italian-designed luxury home in Johannesburg's plush shopping capital, Sandton. The wealth of this one-time poor boy is considerable and unexplained, which is perhaps why state prosecutors, the auditor-general, an internal auditor and PricewaterhouseCoopers, are investigating him on allegations of fraud and corruption over state contracts worth tens of millions of rand.

But many of his followers think his lavish living is appropriate to his Big Man status. "What's wrong with Juju making money," they say. It is what they would do themselves. The crowd loved it recently when in a squatter camp this saviour of the poor cut a cake delivered in a Porsche by a celebrity known for eating sushi off naked women.

This is what makes Julius Malema so dangerous. He articulates the subconscious grievances and aspirations of that large class of young South Africans who feel they have been cheated out of the material fruits of political freedom. South Africa has now overtaken Brazil as the country with the widest gap between rich and poor. Jacob Zuma's plans to halve the unemployment rate, creating five million jobs in the next decade, now seem a pipe-dream. When Malema says "no coloniser brought land to Africa" and asks "Why should I pay for what I own?" he is saying the unsayable for them. So they cheer his every word, even if it is economically illiterate nonsense which would bring the country to its knees.

Like them he is prepared to stake all on one desperate gamble. In the squatter camp he said of his confrontation with Zuma: "If we have come to the end, let it be so." Yet if Malema is cast into political oblivion this week the section of society for whom he speaks will remain, disillusioned and disaffected as before. And what will happen then?

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