from Africa in Transition

Julius Malema and South African Politics

September 28, 2012

Blog Post

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Sub-Saharan Africa

Politics and Government

South Africa

Civil Society


The African National Congress’ (ANC) firebrand outcast Julius Malema has been formally charged with money laundering linked to state contracts in his native Limpopo province, probably the poorest in South Africa. Malema, former leader of the ANC’s Youth League, is a radical voice calling for nationalization of the mines and expropriation of white owned land without compensation. Formerly allies, he and South African president Jacob Zuma are now bitter enemies. The ANC expelled Malema from the party and the youth league in November 2011. However, many–perhaps most–of the youth league members still regard him as their leader. (The youth league is traditionally the most radical part of the ANC.)

The current wave of industrial unrest in the mines is a political boost for Malema. He was the first politician to visit the Marikana mine during the strike, and subsequently addressed a small number of the South African Defense Force on suspension for rioting. Parts of the ANC appear worried about his influence, and whites in the investor class see him as a boogeyman. In the townships, however, he is a hero.

Malema, born only in 1981, has a flamboyant lifestyle characterized by expensive cars, women, and the club scene. Born into poverty, he now has access to nearly limitless resources. The common theory is that his wealth originates in corruption.

In politics, his black populism can be reckless; he has been convicted multiple times for hate speech against whites, and has revived the old liberation chant of “kill the settler, kill the Boer.” Undisciplined, he may well self-destruct—if the ANC and South African establishment do not overreact to him.

Why is he being charged with corruption now? South African commentary ties the charges to his exploitation of mining unrest to advance his political career. The South African judiciary has a reputation of independence. But the prosecutorial authority is often politicized. Malema’s enemies within the ANC may have calculated that he should be brought to court now before the ANC party convention in December, where Zuma will likely face serious opposition to his continued leadership.