Why you should care

While “men of the people” are typically suspect, this controversial brand of South African populism seems to be growing in popularity.

It has been two decades since South Africa closed the book on apartheid, and the nation can take great pride in the strides they’ve made. Under successive governments led by the African National Congress (ANC), the country has sustained democratic transitions and economic development.

Deep inequalities persist, however, and many blacks resent the slow pace of change — particularly as they watch a black elite form while so many others go without the basics. The backlash has enabled ANC opponents to gain ground politically. Among the candidates shouting the loudest in the run-up to May elections is Julius Malema, a 32-year-old populist militant with designs on running the country.

For those fed up with economic inequality, Malema offers hope with a simple message: economic emancipation. His radical approach, which entails nationalizing white farmers’ land, is as reviled by many blacks and most whites as it is championed by the downtrodden. Malema is “positioning himself as the pure defender of the liberation struggle,” says Professor James Hamill, lecturer of politics at the University of Leicester.

Malema offers hope with a simple message: economic emancipation.

One look at the statistics makes it easy to see why Malema resonates. The data indicates a 24.1 percent unemployment rate, which many believe is unofficially much higher. For those under the age of 35, the rate is a whopping 70 percent.

Primary education in the country ranks in the bottom 10 percent worldwide, and service delivery protests are at an all-time high. That says nothing of corruption, which Hamill says is visible in “allocated government contracts at the national, provincial and local levels” — to the tune of inflating construction contract prices to four times their actual cost.

Xoliswa Sithole, a documentary director and producer in Johannesburg, pinpoints why youths listen to Malema. “He is brave enough to articulate what young people want articulated,” she says, adding that the “economic transformation of this country hasn’t happened fast enough, so young black people feel very marginalized.”

Thulani Khanyile, an entrepreneur and an ANC-allied activist, says the ANC has made great advancements in providing basic amenities, pointing to the rise of a black middle class, but also acknowledges that some “structural economic issues have remained quite stubborn to change.” So while the economy has grown, job opportunities for those on the bottom rung have not, providing a “fertile ground for those who speak to issues of economic exclusion,” he says.

He is brave enough to articulate what young people want articulated.

Malema is playing ball on that fertile ground, outflanking the ANC on the left. At a recent rally, he stirred up the crowd with his message to the poor. “You still don’t know the meaning of true freedom [so long as] you still stay in shacks. Freedom is a story. You and your children haven’t received the fruits of the struggle because somebody continues to lie,” Malema said.

Like Nelson Mandela, Malema rose through the ANC’s Youth League, challenging the status quo and winning fans. The son of a poor single mother, he grew up in a segregated black township in the northern Limpopo province, joining the ANC at age 10. As the story goes, he jumped on a bus to Johannesburg when he was 12, following the 1993 assassination of South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani, because he expected civil war and wanted to be there for the fight.

Many people standing and sitting facing the camera outdoors during the day

Workers strike outside the Khomanani Mine on January 16, 2013, in Rustenburg, South Africa.

Source Sibusiso Msibi/Sowetan/Gallo/Getty

You still don’t know the meaning of true freedom [so long as] you still stay in shacks.

Malema, seen most often with one fiery finger in the air and wearing his revolutionary red beret, became a leader in ANC-allied organizations, eventually presiding over the Congress of South African Students. By 27, he’d been catapulted to the head of the ANC’s Youth League, perceived as a grooming ground for future presidents. Many factors aided his meteoric rise, especially his fearless nature and gifted speechmaking.

“Malema has a great way with words,” says Lawrence Hamilton, a professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg who has written books about modern-day South Africa. “He knows how to get the crowd whipped up.”

Gray haired african man walking towards camera surrounded by people outdoors during the day from chest up.

Former President Thabo Mbeki

Source Getty

Malema used the pulpit provided by the Youth League to get noticed — and not always in a good way — by more senior colleagues. He campaigned for the resignation of ANC President Thabo Mbeki and claimed he would kill to protect ANC leader Jacob Zuma (now president of South Africa). He faced charges for inciting racial hatred by publicly singing ”Kill the Boer,” an anti-apartheid song about killing whites. And he called for the overthrow of Botswana’s government, belittled President Zuma (with whom he had a falling out) and sang praises for Mbeki, all of which forced the ANC to question whether Malema was too divisive to have within its ranks.

Malema also developed a reputation for corruption, appearing in flashy suits and allegedly taking kickbacks. Ultimately the ANC’s leadership had enough and expelled him from the party in 2012. The young populist still faces fraud and tax evasion charges. A guilty verdict would bar him from holding office.

Change is you — change your vote.

Instead of quieting down after he was booted from the ANC, Malema launched his self-proclaimed “radical and militant economic emancipation movement” of Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) to oppose the ANC in May.

“The reason you’re here is because you keep on voting for the same people,” Malema tells his supporters. “Change is you — change your vote.”

The EFF aims to nationalize white farmers’ land for redistribution, as well as the banks and mines, all without compensation. Malema finds inspiration in Zimbabwe’s controversial leader, Robert Mugabe — and in Zimbabwe’s land return policy, which, since 1979, has redistributed land to disenfranchised blacks. Malema, for his part, has suggested that the ANC dropped Mandela’s struggle in favor of privilege. But Hamill says Malema’s party is more rhetoric than policy. “There’s nothing but these slogans of ‘nationalize the means of production’ and ‘seize the land without compensation,’” he says.

The slogans may not add up to a plan for governing, but they’re certainly reaching some of South Africa’s working poor. American journalist Eve Fairbanks recently talked with a female janitor at a government office in the town of Brits who said that five of the seven cleaners in her unit were planning to vote for the EFF.

Few outside the EFF, however, believe Malema will win more than 7 percent of the vote, and no one seems to think he poses a serious threat to the ANC. Many opposition groups have broken from the ANC since the 1950s only to flame out as voters decided to stay within the ANC’s fold.

But Malema’s EFF is part of a growing trend of opposition in South Africa that could lead to big changes down the road. Traditional ANC supporters are looking for alternatives like never before. In the last national elections, the Democratic Alliance (the country’s largest opposition group), historically viewed as predominantly white, got 16 percent of the vote to the ANC’s 65.9 percent, and predictions for this year have pegged the ANC at just 56.2 percent to the DA’s 27 percent.

“The question,” says Hamill, “is whether the opposition can push the ANC into the 50s and, if so, it’s possible to envisage a situation in 2019 when the ANC no longer has a majority and has to form coalitions.” This, in turn, would grant opposition parties, and potential coalition partners, like the EFF more say in South African politics.

Many people in yellow standing in bleachers with signs

Supporters of South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) display a mock coffin.

Source Marco Longar/AFP/Getty

Malema’s future may not include becoming South Africa’s president — although Hamill and Sithole both agree that he should not be discounted. But the EFF still stands to gain some ground in parliament with its predicted success. Whatever his electoral success, Malema’s greatest impact may lie in what Hamill calls his “indictment” of the ANC’s failures to deliver on its promises.

Malema creates discomfort — so much so that getting people to talk about him on the record is tricky. He applauds emotive, controversial policies, highlighting real issues for real people on the lowest rungs of South Africa’s economic ladder, and whether or not you like his answers, Sithole believes South Africa can only benefit from this “push, pull, tug.”

So, just as one man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist, in South Africa one man’s hero is another’s demagogue. Malema energetically assumes that role, and in power or not, he won’t be setting down his megaphone anytime soon.

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