He’s the enfant terrible of South African politics, and he’s garnered international headlines for his retro brand of leftist redistributive populism that hearkens back to the 1960s-era Marxism of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
Banished from the ANC two years ago and now leading his own party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Malema hopes to ride a wave of youth discontent over economic stagnation, unemployment and land reform to success on May 7. But it’s more likely than not that his following will be less impressive than the attention he’s already attracted.
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Malema rose to prominence as a youth leader within the ANC in 2002, and he became the head of the ANC Youth League in 2008, initially with the full support of South African president Jacob Zuma. As the leader of the ANC’s Youth League (a position that the late Nelson Mandela once held), Malema powered the ANC’s strong 2009 election victory that elevated Zuma to the presidency.
But as Malema’s profile increased, however, so did his antics — and charges of corruption amid Malema’s clearly rising wealth and status. Yet Malema went far beyond the garden-variety graft that’s now commonly associated with ANC rule. He went to Zimbabwe in 2010 and delivered a full-throated endorsement of its longtime president Robert Mugabe, complicating Zuma’s efforts to steer a middle course between Mugabe and the Zimbabwean opposition, then part of a power-sharing government after the controversial 2008 elections. He openly flouted ANC policy by encouraging opposition groups in Botswana to overthrow what he considered a puppet regime.
Back in South Africa, Malema advocated the kind of nationalist land reforms that Mugabe implemented in Zimbabwe that largely caused white residents to flee and that plunged Zimbabwe’s economy into turmoil. Like Mugabe before him, Malema accuses white South Africans of having stolen land from the indigenous population and argues that black South Africans should confiscate land from white Africans without compensation. What’s more, Malema consistently broke with ANC policy to advocate not only for land redistribution, but for the nationalization of South African mines and other industries, causing further headaches for an ANC leadership that’s spent two decades allaying international investors that South Africa will never implement Mugabe-style policies.
Malema was convicted of hate speech in March 2010 for singing an apartheid-era anthem with the lyrics, ‘shoot the Boer,’ and again in September 2011, drawing condemnation from Zuma and other top ANC leaders. After several rounds with the ANC’s internal disciplinary committee, Malema was ultimately booted from the party in 2012. He quickly formed the EFF, a platform to continue waging his fight for land redistribution and nationalization.
It’s not difficult to understand why some South Africans would find Malema’s message appealing. Continue reading Who is Julius Malema?