Page last updated at 14:15 GMT, Friday, 18 December 2009

Julius Malema: The calculated controversy

Julius Malema (file photo)

By Pumza Fihlani
BBC News, Johannesburg

South Africa's ruling African National Congress is desperately trying to bridge the widening cracks in its partnership with the South African Communist Party (SACP) after its youth wing leader Julius Malema was booed and heckled at the SACP's national conference recently.

As a close ally of President Jacob Zuma, Mr Malema, 27, is one of the most influential people in the country.

He is also one of its most divisive.

The communist delegates booed Mr Malema after he had called SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin a "white messiah" in a row over proposals to nationalise the country's mines.

After being heckled, Mr Malema stormed out, saying that he would report the matter to the president.

Following the row, the ANC distanced itself from his statements - not for the first time - but no disciplinary action has ever been taken against Mr Malema.

His own man?

The ANC youth league leader garnered a lot of support for Mr Zuma in the run-up to the April elections, so some argue that the president is in some way indebted to him.

It has been suggested that his outrageous utterances may be coming from higher up in the ANC.

President Jacob Zuma
Jacob Zuma urges South Africans to be patient with Julius Malema

During Mr Zuma's long legal troubles, which his allies blame on a plot by then President Thabo Mbeki, Mr Malema infamously said: "We are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma".

His statement drew widespread condemnation from politicians and South Africans - opposition parties questioned why President Zuma, who was also present at the rally, had not publicly reprimanded Mr Malema.

But whether from his own thoughts or taking a cue from his seniors, what Mr Malema has said has sometimes come to pass.

He was among the first to announce that Mr Mbeki would be sacked as president.

This seemed incomprehensible at the time - South Africa has had a riotous past but never had a president been fired.

"We will have Mbeki removed. We don't fight to lose. He is going. It doesn't matter who said what, Mbeki won't be president when we go to the election," he said in September 2008.

A few days later the ANC National Executive Committee announced its decision to recall Mr Mbeki.

Maybe his latest claim that he will garner support to have South Africa's mines nationalised should not be lightly dismissed despite criticism from some ANC leaders and alliance partners.

'Young pioneer'

Mr Malema, from the small Pedi ethnic group, was raised by a single mother, a domestic worker in Seshego township in the northern Limpopo Province.

He told the BBC that he joined the ANC, aged nine.

Julius Malema (file photo)
Born 1981, joined ANC aged 9
Had military training in 1990s
2008: Elected ANC Youth League leader
Vowed to "kill" for Jacob Zuma
Touted as possible future president

He was a member of the Mashupatsela programme - the "Young Pioneers" who were trained in armed resistance in the years after Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990.

Mr Malema learned how to make petrol bombs and put together firearms, according to reports.

He continued his military training until he was 14, when he joined the ANC Youth League in Limpopo.

Until 2008 Mr Malema was unknown to many South Africans.

He was elected as the president of the ANC Youth League in April that year during a hotly contested election at the league's national conference in Bloemfontein in Free State Province

This was not an easy victory for Mr Malema, nor was he welcomed into his position with open arms. Another candidate, Saki Mofokeng had been expected to win.

When this did not happen, some delegates claimed there had been of irregularities in the voting procedure and the conference was adjourned.

Mr Malema was only accepted as the leader when the conference resumed in June.


Mr Malema claims to understand South Africa's poor people and has promised at numerous rallies to advance their cause

He has said he would fight against the "imperialists" and has called for the "elimination of counter-revolutionary" forces.

Let the minister use that fake accent to address our problems and not behave like a spoilt minister
Julius Malema on former Education Minister Naledi Pandor

Such statements are particularly sensitive because of South Africa's apartheid history and there have been concerns that some would act on Mr Malema's statements.

He ruffled feathers when he insulted former Education Minister Naledi Pandor, who is respected in ANC circles, during an address to protesting students at a university in Pretoria.

"Let the minister use that fake accent to address our problems and not behave like a spoilt minister."

The ANC distanced itself from the statement and made him apologise.

Perhaps one of the most damning of his statements was when he suggested that the woman who accused Mr Zuma of rape had had a "nice time" with him because in the morning she had "requested breakfast and taxi money".

He was recently hauled before the Gender Equality Court by the Sonke Gender Group, which said this statement was insensitive to those who had been victims of rape and would perpetrate rape myths.

But still no action was taken against him.

Instead, the president, who has described Mr Malema as a good leader who is "worthy of inheriting the ANC" urged South Africans to be patient with Mr Malema and understand that he is young and still needs guidance.

But who will dare offer guidance to a man with such a sharp tongue, fiery temper and who has friends in the highest office in the land?

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