ANC youth leader Julius Malema, center, sings with supporters after a court… (Themba Hadebe, Associated…)
Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — He's been called "the black man who is rude about whites," a South African Sarah Palin, a "dictator-in-waiting." But even his critics will say this about Julius Malema: The leader of the ruling party's youth league might be the most influential person in the country.
The divisive populist has exposed fault lines not only in a society still raw from the racial injustices of apartheid, but those in the African National Congress itself after 17 years of post-apartheid rule.
Malema, who faces an ANC disciplinary hearing Tuesday on potential corruption charges, has triggered an almighty struggle for the soul of the party, igniting a policy debate on nationalization of mines and banks and Zimbabwe-style land seizures that business analysts and even government ministers warn would be ruinous to the country's economy.
The outspoken 30-year-old with a shaved head and a commanding baritone serves as a kind of Freudian id of the ANC, saying things no one else will say. (For instance, his insistence that it's time for white farmers — and businesspeople — to hand over their ill-gotten gains to blacks: "Why should I pay for what I own?")
Malema, who has been convicted of hate speech, is known for his temper tantrums, verbal attacks on whites, sexist rhetoric and intolerance of dissent. But no one else resonates like Malema with South Africa's sea of angry young unemployed, almost all of them black, who might not bother to vote if not for him.
Peter Bruce, the editor of the Business Day newspaper, recently said that it would be difficult for President Jacob Zuma, or anyone else, to be elected as leader without Malema's support.
"A kingmaker supreme, he is all but king himself," Bruce wrote in June.
Zuma long ignored Malema's frequent prods and insults, to the point where analysts said his presidency was being undermined. Now, however, senior ANC leaders have gotten fed up with Malema's arrogance, and have decided to curb him.
His Tuesday disciplinary hearing follows a string of newspaper reports that he funds a lavish lifestyle — complete with a new Mercedes and the building of an Italian-designed luxury home — by using his influence to direct government contracts to his friends.
The struggle could be the end of Malema, or at least his suspension from the party. If mishandled, it could tear the party apart.
Twenty-one years ago, Malema was a threadbare boy of 9 with no father, worn shoes and tattered clothes. Growing up in miserable poverty, he used to collect cans to trade for a few coins for the family. His mother, who had epilepsy, was jobless.
There wasn't much hope in his desolate township of Seshego in Limpopo province, but as apartheid ended and the 1994 elections that would bring Nelson Mandela to power approached, he tagged along behind local ANC officials, running errands, being useful.
In return, the "comrades" filled the gap left by his father: They gave him taxi money, paid his school fees and bought him a cellphone, the first mark of manhood for a poor township boy, according to a new biography of Malema, "An Inconvenient Youth" by Fiona Forde.
Malema joined the ANC as the Soviet Union, its model and protector, was collapsing. Malema, imbued with decades of Cold War anti-imperialistic rhetoric, regards foreign white journalists with suspicion, if not paranoia.
When The Times asked for an interview — or even a copy of his schedule of upcoming appearances — Malema's right-hand man, Floyd Shivambu, gruffly rebuffed the request, failing to mention that Malema had a news conference that same afternoon.
When BBC reporter Jonah Fisher questioned Malema at a news conference last year, the youth league president shouted at him and ejected him, calling him a "bloody agent" with a "white tendency," pointing at the reporter's crotch and making disparaging remarks about his genitals.
When Forde asked for an interview in 2007, Malema agreed, but was wary and cautious (out of character for the brash young fighter), convinced the Irish journalist was a foreign spy. He decided it was worth the risk: Controversy was the oxygen that fed his dizzying rise.
Her book conveys her sense of dichotomy: He's funny, good-humored, emotionally open and loving about his son and grandmother, who are his closest family members. He told Forde about buying his grandmother some trendy shoes, so fancy that people in the township pointed at them, and when he heard about the unwanted attention, he bought her a more modest pair as well.
"He's very comfortable with his feelings, with expressing loss and expressing happiness. He's a very happy person, someone who laughs a lot," Forde said in an interview.
The public politician, she found, was far less likable.
"The politician is not a nice character at all."