JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Julius Malema is the enfant terrible of South African politics, a young man known for his big mouth, controversial opinions and important friends, but lampooned by the country’s editorial cartoonists as being dressed in diapers.
When Malema, leader of the ruling African National Congress’s youth wing, turned 29 last week, he celebrated in typical showboat fashion: a rented stadium in his hometown of Polokwane, live music, high-profile political guests and $100 bottles of Moet & Chandon champagne which he gleefully sprayed at attending media.
The party, which cost an estimated $60,000, seemed an astonishing choice of event for a young politico who has come under attack for his lavish lifestyle.
Malema has been touted by many pundits — and even President Jacob Zuma — as a future president of the country. But weeks of media scrutiny have resulted in a never-ending stream of unflattering front-page stories, sparked by questions about how Malema, who grew up the son of a cleaning lady in Limpopo, one of the country’s poorest provinces, could afford his $34,000 Breitling watch, two expensive homes and black Mercedes-Benz C63 — on an official monthly salary of $2,700.
The biggest revelation was that companies connected to Malema had landed more than 20 contracts to build roads, landfill sites and drainage systems in his home province since 2008. Malema was denounced as a “tenderpreneur” for his companies’ success in landing lucrative government tenders, drawing calls for an investigation into the bidding procedures by the ANC’s left-wing political alliance partners.
The latest explosive story alleges that Malema hasn’t paid his taxes since becoming the youth league leader in 2008, and none of the companies that he is involved with has complied with South African tax regulations, according to City Press newspaper.
“The urban educated blacks are disgusted,” said Pretoria-based analyst Prince Mashele, head of the Centre for Politics and Research. “But Julius knows that the black elites are a drop in the ocean.”
Malema’s appeal is to the “ignorant, uneducated South Africans” in the poor townships of the country, who see him as a poor boy made good and provide Malema with his source of political strength, said Mashele. For them his birthday party, which was attended by thousands, was a joyous celebration, not a faux pas. Limpopo premier Cassel Mathale, who attended the party, praised Malema as “the future leader of this country.”
Mashele says the recent attacks in the media won’t damage Malema’s populist appeal, part of which comes from the young politician’s skill at using the media as a platform for reaching out to his constituency. “The ignorant in society will continue to idolize him,” said Mashele.
Malema’s angry attempts to defend himself against the mounting allegations have been confusing. While Malema claimed that he had resigned from his companies when he became ANC Youth League president, it was later revealed that one of the companies was established a month after his election as the youth league’s boss. He then went on the attack against City Press, the newspaper that broke the story, accusing its reporter of forging his signature on documents to show that he was still a director at the company.
“Each time he disputes a claim in the media, new revelations come out that make it look like the media is correct,” notes Mashele.
The various provincial branches of the ANC Youth League have released furious statements denouncing the media reports about their leader. “Any attempt to associate a success of a black child to corruption is malicious and unwarranted,” said one such statement by the youth league’s Gauteng provincial office.
One youth league spokesman claimed that the ANC fought in the anti-apartheid struggle in order for Malema to have such a lifestyle. “He has a right, because these are the privileges and rights that we have fought for,” Ndoda Ngemntu told reporters in Cape Town.
Meanwhile the country’s union leaders have called for “lifestyle audits” into the financial affairs of politicians who appear to be living beyond their means, a proposal that has gained support in a country with widespread poverty, unemployment and growing anger at official corruption.
In a separate development South Africa's transport minister has announced a probe into roads and bridges built by SGL Engineering Projects, a company in which Malema is listed as the majority shareholder, which washed away in heavy rains due to poor construction.
Malema has made friends in high places. Malema and his Youth League gave strategic backing to Jacob Zuma as he rose to become leader of the ANC and ousted Thabo Mbeki at a key conference in Polokwane, capital of Limpopo, in 2007.
Zuma has returned the favor, publicly describing Malema as a “leader in the making” and worthy of “inheriting the ANC.” However the two have recently disagreed over the nationalization of the country’s mines, which Malema has pushed for despite Zuma stating that it is not government policy.
Some analysts view the recent discrediting of Malema as part of a larger schism between him and the ANC's left-wing whose support also helped to boost Zuma to lead the ANC at the Polokwane conference. Malema has blamed “left-wing leaders who drink red wine” for his recent troubles.
Since coming to public attention two years ago, Malema has developed a reputation for his outspoken, often insensitive and race-obsessed comments. However he has also managed to portray himself as being an advocate of the poor and unemployed, and of a new generation of brash political leadership.
Among his most infamous statements, Malema has accused opposition leader Helen Zille of appointing “boyfriends and concubines” to her cabinet “so that she can continue to sleep around with them.” He has said he would “kill for Zuma.” And he told university students last year that the woman who accused Zuma of rape would not have stayed for breakfast if she hadn’t enjoyed the sex.
Just this week, Malema led students at the University of Johannesburg in singing "Kill the boer, they are rapists," referring to white Afrikaners.
He also attacked two prominent female political leaders, saying that "no normal man" would marry Independent Democrats leader Patricia de Lille, who has criticized Malema over reports that he has not paid his taxes. Malema again attacked Helen Zille, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance party, charging that she is "suffering from Satanism" and that she is trying to demolish churches in black communities. Zille said she would sue Malema for his comments.
Pieter Mulder, the deputy agriculture minister and leader of the Freedom Front Plus party, has laid a criminal complaint against Malema over the "shoot the boer" song, saying that it amounted to hate speech.
Malema’s career as ANC Youth League president will continue to be controversial as it is reported that some members want to reject him as leader at their conference next year.
Editor's note: This dispatch was updated to give the correct the song lyrics to "Kill the boer."