5 Sep 2012

Who is South Africa’s Julius Malema?

Firebrand, agitator, radical. Channel 4 News profiles the controversial former head of the African National Congress’s Youth League, who is backing striking miners in South Africa.

Julius Malema

At 31 Julius Malema has, by most standards, had a stellar political career. Ostentatious, outspoken and charismatic, he is widely held to have been the power-broker who enabled his erstwhile hero Jacob Zuma to become South African president three years ago.

But in the words of Tom Cargill, assistant head of Chatham House‘s Africa programme, Mr Malema has “put those skills towards a divisive political ideology”.

A love of inflammatory rhetoric as strong as a dislike for the rules finally saw him booted out of the ANC for causing division in the party and bringing it into disrepute – an act which many people thought would be beyond the ANC’s will. He was also found guilty of propagating racism for proclaiming at a rally that whites should be treated as criminals for stealing land from blacks.

I think he’s served a valuable purpose in waking up people in and outside South Africa to the divisions that still exist there. Tom Cargill, Chatham House

His career had been promising. Raised by a single mother in the northern Limpopo province, Malema epitomises the self-made man – how he got that wealth is the subject of much speculation but more of that later – and he is an role model for his impoverished, mainly black supporters hoping to emulate his success.

He joined the Masupatsela pioneer movement of the ANC when he was just nine and is said to have received military training at 14, after which he joined the ANC’s Youth League as South Africa moved beyond the apartheid era in 1994.

‘Shoot a Boer’

Mr Malema was elected leader of the ruling party’s youth wing in 2008 and roused support for Mr Zuma – infamously declaring he would “kill for Zuma”. But his language and tendency to explicitly exploit racial tensions.

For example, in 2010, while the number of murders of white farmers mounted, he chanted an apartheid-era song which calls for blacks to “shoot the Boer [white South African]” while he was on the campus of the University of Johannesburg. This in the nation where a black farm worker was jailed for the 2010 murder of the white supremacist leader Eugene Terreblanche.

The “shoot the Boer” stunt saw Malema found guilty of hate speech by a South African court.

But Tom Cargill says in a country which is still riven with deep racial and economic inequalities, Malema’s style is in some ways having a positive impact: “I think he’s served a valuable purpose in waking up people in and outside South Africa to the divisions that still exist there. Men in particular feel they have sacrificed a lot in the transition away from apartheid and have got little in return.

“What’s happening with regards to the mine shootings there shows how little, in too many ways, the country has changed since apartheid and that’s very frightening.”

Mr Malema has also faced hate speech charges before. In 2010 a court ordered him to pay £4,500 to a centre for abused women after he said that a woman who had accused Jacob Zuma of rape must have had “a nice time”. He said: “When a woman didn’t enjoy it, she leaves early in the morning. Those who had a nice time will wait until the sun comes out, request breakfast and ask for taxi money.”

Tom Cargill is not convinced Julius Malema is so one-dimensional as to suit his rabble rouser label, however. He told Channel 4 News: “I think that it slightly demeans his intelligence and his strategy that he’s demonstrated, certainly when he was ANC youth leader. I think that for all of his flaws he’s an interesting and adept politician.”


Mr Malema’s support for the striking workers at the Marikana mine continues his campaign for South Africa’s mines to be nationalised. He is a regular attendee at mine sites and has won political points for his backing of the industry which forms the backbone of the South African economy. But others have sensed he is being politically opportunist in discrediting his avowed foe, Jacob Zuma.

And questions over Julius Malema’s business interests tend to ask how he acquired his own, often flaunted, wealth. A long-running inquiry into allegations of fraud and corruption is reported to be nearing completion.

The investigation has been looking into fraud connected to tenders for contracts in Mr Malema’s home state of Limpopo which date back to 2010. But analysts say any arrest and potential charges could signal an end for Mr Malema’s political career, at least in the interim: “My view is that because of the long-running court cases he is involved in, we might be hearing less of him,” Tom Cargill told Channel 4 News.

“As soon as the sources of his finance are removed, he becomes less popular with his largely working class supporters. This is because he will be less able to live the aspirational lifestyle that they expect, nor will he be able to travel around the country to visit them.”

But it is perhaps doubtful that a political character as strong as Julius Malema, who as a young, passionate voice in some ways represents what is needed in South African politics, is likely to go away for good.