S.Africa: When pro-poor crusader is wanted man over illegal wealth
South African firebrand Julius Malema (pictured), for whom an arrest warrant was issued on Friday, has consistently denounced inequality, but faces charges for funding his wealthy lifestyle through corruption.
Booted from the ruling African National Congress in April, the fiery 31-year-old has claimed to speak for the frustrated millions of poor South Africans for whom democracy has yet to bring better living conditions.
The arrest warrant has been linked to graft, but comes a week after a government clampdown on spreading mine unrest which Malema has used to launch political attacks on South African President Jacob Zuma.
Notorious for his controversial statements, Malema most recently called on striking mineworkers to make the industry ungovernable for better wages, accusing rich white mine owners of exploitation.
He toured various mines, a mainstay of Africa’s largest economy, starting with the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana, where 46 people died in striker violence, 34 of whom were shot dead by police.
The former ANC Youth League leader lashed out against white mine owners, but also did not hesitate to lambast Zuma’s ANC-led government for benefiting from inequality in the mining industry.
He was booted from the party for ill-discipline after becoming a fierce critic of Zuma as internal jockeying increases ahead of party elections in December.
Malema this week scoffed at reports he would be arrested. If it did happen, his arch-rival Zuma would be behind the scheme, who he also claimed plotted to kill him.
“If we die tomorrow and anytime soon, we would have been killed by Jacob Zuma and his people … If we are illegally arrested tomorrow, we would have been arrested by Jacob Zuma and free courts of law will set us free,” Malema told a media conference on Monday.
Despite his pro-poor discourse, his lavish lifestyle has drawn the attention of authorities who were investigating whether he earned kickbacks by oiling tenders for government contracts — and now seem confident they have enough evidence to charge him.
Charges have not been confirmed, but local media report they relate to corruption in government tender allocations through his political connections.
Born to a domestic worker in 1981, Malema grew up poor in the northern province of Limpopo.
His power lies in his poor black audience, left in the shadows of South Africa’s freedom and to whose frustrations he speaks with promises to nationalise mines and banks and redistribute the country’s wealth.
When he was elected Youth League president in 2008, Malema stirred controversy with his racially charged rhetoric that has forced the nation to confront its gaping economic divide that remains apartheid’s most enduring legacy.
From his revival of an anti-apartheid song that exhorts listeners to “shoot the white farmer”, for which he was found guilty of hate speech in a civil case last year, to his calls for white-owned land to be seized and given to poor blacks, Malema is never far from the headlines.
He revels in such controversy, feeding the caricature among critics that he is a dangerous and uncontrollable buffoon. But “Juju”, as he is often called, lives in a style that has little to do with those whose cause he champions.
He is a lover of designer clothes, fast cars and big houses. He lives in an upmarket Johannesburg suburb, and is famous for his Breitling watch worth some 250,000 rand ($32,000, 23,000 euros).
When he was still part of the ruling party, the ANC and Zuma long tolerated his outbursts — and, some observers said, used them to divert attention from the lack of progress on eradicating inequality since the end of apartheid in 1994.
But a disciplinary committee expelled him for sowing divisions in the party after he said former president Thabo Mbeki was a better leader than arch-rival Zuma and called to oust the democratically elected government of neighbouring Botswana.
Since the slapdown by Nelson Mandela’s former anti-apartheid movement Malema has disproven speculation he would fade from political life with his statements. The ANC’s Youth League has insisted he remains their leader.
Mr Johannes Myburgh filed this article for AFP from Johannesburg