Johannesburg — Julius Malema may be South Africa’s most controversial personality. The former leader of the African National Congress youth wing has called for the seizure of white-owned farms in a nation still grappling with racial divides. He has said the country’s mines should be nationalized, making foreign investors nervous.
His most incendiary act yet may be his public rendition of an apartheid-era song that included a call to kill whites. That was enough for the ANC leadership to expel Malema earlier this year, accusing him of sowing divisions in their ranks.
The once-rising star wielded enormous power inside the party that ended white rule. President Jacob Zuma had labeled him a future leader of the country. Now, as he faces allegations of fraud and money laundering, Malema has used national outrage over the killing of 34 striking miners in August and a wave of labor unrest to revive his political fortunes.
After the police shootings, Malema quickly aligned himself with the miners, dancing and singing with them and calling for nationwide strikes. He has vocally criticized Zuma, accusing him and the ANC of being out of touch with the impoverished masses and mishandling the strikes.
“Our leaders have lost their way and have been co-opted by mine owners and fed profits. They don’t care about you,” Malema told a cheering crowd after the shootings, according to news reports.
And he has resumed exploiting South Africa’s apartheid past, describing himself as an “economic freedom fighter.”
During a recent visit to neighboring Zimbabwe, he urged black South Africans to seize land owned by whites, telling them to use violence if necessary.
“They killed people to get that land and those minerals,” Malema said of white South Africans, according to media reports in Zimbabwe. “We are not going to give them money when we take the land back, because it will be like we are thanking them with money for killing our people.”
Malema’s spokesman did not respond to repeated calls for comment. But in a rare interview with a foreign media outlet, Malema told Britain’s Sunday Telegraph in July that “those who come to interact with me get a different picture altogether.”
“I am a good person. I've got no bad intentions to harm anybody in this country,” he said.
Malema, 31, was raised by his mother, a domestic worker, in the province of Limpopo. At age 9, he joined the ANC. At 27, he was elected leader of the ANC Youth League. But less than two years later, the party convicted him of committing hate speech, the first of two such convictions that led to his expulsion from the party.
Malema was once a major ally of Zuma and helped propel him to the presidency in 2009. Zuma characterized Malema as a national leader. But the two later had a falling-out, and Malema is now one of Zuma’s fiercest critics.
Malema’s detractors say he is an opportunist and a demagogue seeking to manipulate South Africa’s lingering inequalities to gain political and popular clout. Some analysts say that Malema represents divisions within the ANC and that he is being manipulated.
“He is a product of the factionalism within the ANC,” said Steven Friedman, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy in Johannesburg. “The people who use him are people trying to get factional advantage within the ANC. He can be told to say things that other people in the national factions of the ANC can’t say.”
Friedman said Malema lacks a large power base but gives the impression of having one by intervening in conflicts and sympathizing with people. “It’s an optical illusion,” Friedman said. “I don’t think he can remain afloat politically.”
But others view Malema as a champion of a poor underclass angry at the ANC-led government for failing to providing housing, jobs, electricity and other basic services.
In the township of Khutsong, about 55 miles west of Johannesburg, Malema’s words, particularly his criticism of Zuma and his government, resonate among residents who live in shack settlements with no toilets or running water.
“He understands us,” said Sikhulu Ndwandwe, 33, a social worker.
But other residents said they view Malema as corrupt. He is known for his lavish lifestyle, which includes a mansion in an upscale Johannesburg neighborhood and a pricey Range Rover.
Today, Malema is the subject of a criminal probe, accused of using his former position as head of the ANC Youth League to influence the awarding of government contracts to enrich himself and his business partners. He has denied the allegations, calling them politically motivated.