Pushing racial buttons, a young firebrand stirs up South Africa

The ruling African National Congress party has suspended its youth league leader Julius Malema for hate speech, but his career is far from over. 

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Suspended ANCYL president Julius Malema (l.) gestures as his secretary-general Sindiso Magaqa looks on during a media briefing at the party's headquarters in Johannesburg, on Nov. 16.

For a while, he strode South Africa like a colossus. He was Julius Malema, the ruling African National Congress’s Youth League leader, and if he didn’t like you, he’d tell you to “jump.”

But last month, the ANC suspended Mr. Malema from the party for undermining party leadership and for denouncing the Botswanan government of President Ian Khama, in conflict with ANC policies. And Malema had been taken to the ANC’s disciplinary panel before. In May 2010, he was fined 10,000 South African rand (about $1,200) and forced to take anger-management classes after he criticized President Jacob Zuma. (Malema is currently still able to speak at ANC events until the ANC's internal appeal process ends, a fact of some horrified fascination for some South Africans, who thought that perhaps the suspension decision had closed the door on Malema.)

It is this very intemperance in public speaking that explains South Africa’s fascination with this not-so-young youth leader – he is 30. How in the world, many South Africans wonder, did this young man make it into politics in the first place?

The short answer to that question is that Malema rose to prominence as the ANCYL’s leader. Together with the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the ANCYL endorsed Jacob Zuma to replace President Thabo Mbeki as head of the ANC. Having installed Zuma in power, Malema then set his eyes on changing ANC policy on everything from the ownership of farmland to the nationalization of mines, and anyone who disagreed with him was likely to be branded a traitor, or worse.

In April 2010, Malema kicked out a BBC journalist, Jonah Fisher, from a press conference at the ANC’s headquarters. After Malema had railed against rich, selfish people living in Johannesburg’s posh Sandton neighborhood, Mr. Fisher had pointed out that Malema himself lived in Sandton. Malema expelled Fisher, calling him a “bloody agent.”

That outburst prompted a number of satirical songs on South African radio stations, including one called "Revolutionary House.”

In March of 2010, Malema faced charges for hate speech because of his penchant for singing the struggle-era song called, “Kill the Boer.” Given that the murder of white farmers in South Africa appears to be on the rise, courts eventually agreed that a song encouraging people to kill boers, or farmers, was perhaps insensitive at best.

Malema continued to sing the song, but changed the lyrics slightly to “kiss the boer.”

In October of this year, Malema got himself in trouble for using a racist term offensive to Indians while making the very reasonable statement that poor black kids in townships should have the same educational opportunities as the better-off children in Indian neighborhoods.

If Malema were Queen Elizabeth, he might have called 2011 his "annus horribilis." Or perhaps not. 

Malema’s antics have naturally been a boon for newspapers, catering to a white readership constantly on the lookout for threats to their survival, as well as to black middle-class readers who frankly expect their country’s political leaders to behave themselves better. But Malema has also been a boon to comedians like Riaad Moosa and Trevor Noah, who has refined his impersonation of Malema to a fine art.

Yet while some political observers have been eager to pound a few nails into Malema’s political coffin, saying the ANC leadership has essentially dismantled the youth leader’s base of support and his access to money and power, it is important to remember that Malema wasn't a misfit on the street, mumbling to himself. At every rally, there was an enthusiastic audience of young people who had come to hear Malema speak.

When Malema talks of nationalization of mines, or the confiscation of white-owned farmlands, or the equitable education of black children, his words reverberate in a country where most major mining firms and other businesses remain in the hands of whites, where farmland remains in the hands of whites, and where rampant unemployment and illiteracy still affect black South Africans much more than other communities. Even comedians will admit that those underlying problems are not a joke. If Malema doesn’t give voice to that sentiment, someone else eventually will.

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