For all Nelson Mandela’s enthusiastic promotion of the rainbow nation over the years, fears of racial polarisation are never far below the surface of South African society.

Those anxieties have come to the fore in the past few days after the brutal murder of the white supremacist leader Eugene Terre’Blanche. On Sunday, in a sign of how concerned the government was about the signals the killing could send, only weeks before the start of the World Cup, President Jacob Zuma addressed the nation to “urge calm”.

Yet this does not appear to be a country on the edge of a race war. Mr Terre’Blanche might have been a menacing national figure in the early 1990s, but he was much diminished. His party – the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, or AWB – is tiny, and revoked its calls for revenge attacks almost as soon as it had made them on Sunday.

Rather, the resulting commotion owes much to events far from Mr Terre’Blanche’s farm and in particular to the controversy surrounding Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the governing African National Congress Youth League.

Since winning its presidency just under two years ago, the 29-year-old has gone out of his way to court headlines. He has been a fierce advocate of mine nationalisation, clashing frequently with party elders. He has defended the right of black leaders to become rich, threatening journalists who have investigated allegations he has become hugely wealthy via government tenders.

Last month, he started publicly singing “Kill the Boer”, an anti-apartheid resistance anthem. Two weeks ago, a high court judge ruled the song unconstitutional, but Mr Malema says he will ignore the decision and, last weekend, while he was in Zimbabwe expressing admiration for President Robert Mugabe’s violent land-redistribution policies, he sang it again.

Among black youth, Mr Malema is a popular figure. He may have struggled to matriculate at school and may be regarded as a bit of a buffoon by the multiracial metropolitan elite and most whites, but his simplistic radicalism tends to go down well among a social group frustrated by limited job opportunities and a growing wealth gap.

“He thumbs his nose up at authority figures and white people and that is very important,” says Anthony Butler, who teaches politics at Witwatersrand university in Johannesburg.

What’s more, Mr Malema has influence within the ANC and is well-placed to play a role in growing factional fighting.

Since April last year, as the alliance that backed Mr Zuma has come under strain, Mr Malema has been supported by a group of powerful black businessmen who have benefited from black economic empowerment, the policy aimed at reversing the economic injustices of apartheid. The Youth League – with the implicit backing of these senior figures – has challenged the influence within the ANC of the Communist party.

ANC grandees are confident about their ability to manage Mr Malema’s excesses. They are apt to forgive his extremism as a product of youthful idealism. The “Kill the Boer” anthem is purely symbolic, they say. Nationalising the mines is not – nor likely to be – an ANC or government policy, they insist.

All this means that Mr Malema’s populism is less of a danger than it might appear. Unlike some extremists – Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez (who came to power in competition with a decaying social democracy) comes to mind – Mr Malema is politically contained. He has no future outside the ANC, which controls access to spoils and jobs for him and his supporters.

However, by keeping Mr Malema and his comrades inside the movement, the ANC risks undermining both its image – in particular internationally – and its effectiveness. This suggests the gap between the political elite and the mainly poor voters who elect it will only grow.

So far – as one bank economist has said – “clever people are betting that the centre will hold”. But the danger is that Mr Malema’s approach eventually will weaken democracy, potentially putting social peace at risk.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

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