April 15, 2010 6:43 pm

ANC’s provocative protégé poses dilemma

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For two months Julius Malema, the flamboyant and outspoken leader of South Africa’s governing African National Congress Youth League has rarely been off the front pages of the country’s newspapers. Dinner tables in middle-class homes, black and white, have hummed with talk of his latest provocative action.

Businessmen and farmers have fretted over his calls for nationalisation. Liberals were outraged last week as the 29-year-old unleashed a tirade of insults on the head of Jonah Fisher, a correspondent for the BBC, before expelling him from a press conference. Journalists investigating the sources of Mr Malema’s wealth and his fancy lifestyle – he is alleged to have benefited from provincial government tenders – have been threatened.

For many of the country’s 2.5m Afrikaners, he has become a hate figure for publicly singing in defiance of a court order “Shoot the Boer”, an anti-apartheid anthem rarely heard in recent years before Mr Malema decided to adopt it last month.

He is arguably the first significant political figure to appear in the post-Mandela era. Unlike Jacob Zuma, the South African president, and his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, and the ANC’s grandees, he has minimal liberation struggle credentials. He was a boy when Nelson Mandela was released.

The question vexing South Africa is: what does this polarising figure portend?

“It would be generally true to say that Malema is despised and ridiculed by most white South Africans, as well as people from other minority groups, even by sections of the urban black elite,” wrote Max du Preez and Mandy Rossouw in a recent book on Mr Malema.

But for many black supporters, Mr Malema’s rags-to-riches story makes him a role model. Mmathabo Tladi, a 24-year-old student from Soweto, is not herself a fan of Mr Malema but knows many people who are and describes Mr Malema as “a voice from the wilderness” who speaks for a lot of people who are poor and marginalised.

“A lot of people feel they are in the same place or even worse than they were in 1994 [the end of white rule]. He will say things that are provocative and people say, yes, I want to say that,” says Ms Tladi.

Mr Malema also has an appeal for some black professionals who feel their aspirations are being stifled in a corporate elite, still dominated by the white minority. “I know quite a few people in their early 30s, who have good jobs but who have hit a glass ceiling and feel sold short by black economic empowerment [the positive discrimination policies introduced by Mr Mbeki]. Malema obviously appeals to them,” says Ms Tladi.

For Mr Zuma this poses a difficulty. Mr Malema’s support was vital in Mr Zuma’s bid for the presidency but his young protégé embarrassed him by visiting Zimbabwe, praising Robert Mugabe, its octogenarian president, and undermining South Africa’s efforts to persuade him to make concessions. Last weekend, the president publicly rebuked the Youth League, arguing that its conduct had been “alien to the culture of the ANC”.

“None of this looked good for the image of the ANC,” says a party official. “We have been very strong.”

He was embroiled in more controversy in the fallout of the murder this month of Eugene Terre’Blanche, a white supremacist. The murder crystallised Afrikaner fears, and led to allegations that the youth leader was deliberately stoking violence in rural areas. That in turn sparked exaggerated international media allegations of a race war that has tarnished South Africa’s image ahead of the World Cup, due to begin in June. “It has done massive damage,” says William Gumede, a Johannesburg-based political analyst.

Reining in Mr Malema will not be easy, however. Expulsion is a possibility but unlikely, according to analysts.

Mr Malema has powerful allies and he was an effective vote-winner in last year’s elections, with his provocative style popular among young people. Furthermore, growing inequalities and the sense that many of the promises of the post-apartheid settlement have not been realised have led to increasing frustration to which Mr Malema gives voice.

Mr Malema, was born in a poor rural township and raised by his mother, a domestic servant. He struggled in the formal school system, matriculating only at the age of 21 and failing mathematics and woodwork. A political activist since the age of nine, he has worked only for the ANC, owes his lifestyle to political connections and once told an interviewer his “whole being belongs” to the party.

There is evidence too to suggest that Mr Malema may not be quite so ignorant as he is portrayed by his detractors. Jonathan Jansen, the black rector of the University of the Free State, who was himself the target last year of a vitriolic Youth League attack, says his demagogic style disguises an acute political brain.

“People make a huge mistake in judging him on the basis of his performances on the platform. He is highly intelligent and very insightful about politics.”

He certainly seems to have an acute political brain – many analysts suggest, for example, that Mr Malema’s skilfully started the whole “Shoot the Boer” affair to distract from media interest in his financial affairs. But Mr Jansen – who has met Mr Malema – insists he is also open to rational argument.

As the ANC’s elders prepare to deal with their turbulent protégé, it is to be hoped that the rector is right.

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