Malema was a lightning rod for massive dissatisfaction in South Africa, where poverty, inequality, and lack of opportunity blight the lives of millions. Yet his call for a revolutionary rather than a reform track clearly threatened to send South Africa—Africa’s largest economy—careening into crisis and conflict rather than the socialist, redistributionist paradise Malema envisioned.
By age 28, Malema had become a household name in South Africa. He rose within the structures of the ANC party to become chief of the ANC’s youth wing. Andrew Harding of the BBC described Malema as “the swaggering, articulate, comic, bullying, Hugo Chavez of South African politics.”
Malema grabbed headlines as a militant supporter of current President Jacob Zuma in the bitter struggles for ANC leadership in 2007–2008. Within the ranks of the ANC, Malema worked to unseat President Thabo Mbeki and swing power behind the once-disgraced Zuma. “We are prepared to die for Zuma. We are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma.”
Malema was first charged with hate speech when he said a young woman whom Zuma allegedly raped actually had “a nice time.” Zuma was acquitted of the rape charge. Malema was again censured for singing the anti-apartheid anthem “Shoot the Boer.”
As an advocate of muscular black nationalism, Malema demanded that Zuma nationalize South Africa’s vital mining industry and urged a policy of land distribution even if it meant a Robert Mugabe–style seizure of property from white farmers, a practice that helped to ruin neighboring Zimbabwe.
Malema once more angered the ANC brass when in August 2011 he accused Botswana’s democratic government of being a “puppet regime” and a “footstool of imperialism” and suggested that the ANC Youth send a commando team to help implement “regime change.”
Meanwhile, the flamboyant Malema appeared to live beyond his means and became the subject of corruption investigations.
With Malema sidelined, President Zuma’s battle to retain the presidency and the leadership of the ANC this year became easier. Yet it also indicates that Zuma and the ANC still have enormous work to do to strengthen internal discipline, put national interests first, and deliver effective policy responses to the rank-and-file followers while preserving racial peace, rule of law, and a free-market economy in South Africa.