Julius Malema is everything an Afri-can leader should not be. The head of the ANC's youth wing is charismatic and popular but – with his temper tantrums, lavish lifestyle, racist rhetoric, intolerance of dissent, purging of enemies, electoral manipulations and economically ruinous policies – he is a throwback to the continent's most disastrous traditions.
Today South Africa's ruling party hauls him before a disciplinary tribunal. He is accused of bringing the ANC into disrepute by calling for the overthrow of the democratic government of neighbouring Botswana. The hearing may expel or suspend him. But it may also set off a damaging struggle for the soul of the nation. Hints of trouble ahead came yesterday with Malema supporters burning the ruling party flag and throwing rocks at its headquarters. Riot police responded with stun grenades and water cannon.
Malema is the voice of South Africa's subconscious. He is a man who says the unsayable – singing apartheid-era anthems, advocating Zimbabwe-style seizures from white farmers and businessmen, and calling to nationalise the mines. The problem is the huge swathes of disaffected unemployed youths who cheer his every word and threaten the future of President Jacob Zuma, whose power-base is not enough to secure re-election without the votes of the rural poor.
South Africa's economy is struggling. Growth is lagging behind Mr Zuma's pledge to create 5 million jobs in the next decade. But Julius Malema, who has been dubbed a "dictator in waiting", offers no serious solutions. The nation will founder if it adopts the juvenile economics of the leader of the youth wing.
Yet if Malema is removed the people for whom he speaks will remain. Disillusioned and potentially explosive, they are the ticking timebomb beneath the Zuma government.