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South Africa's youngest high-living politician

Key ally of Jacob Zuma is controversial, outspoken and being investigated for corruption.

South African Julius Malema, president of the African National Congress Youth League, is controversial for his lavish lifestyle and allegations of corruption. Here Malema arrives at the final draw for World Cup 2010, Dec. 4, 2009 in Cape Town. (Getty Images)

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.”