In the past months, South Africa’s newspapers have been busy discussing Julius Malema. He is the undiscussed boss of the youth wing of the ANC and capable of keeping the ANC old guard on their toes. “To some blacks, he is the embodiment of the nightmare they knew could happen, but hoped never would; while to some whites, he breathed life into the nightmare they were always waiting to happen, the one that would finally … harden their beliefs that black politics would be disastrous for the country”.
Julius Malema was born in a poor family but managed to join the elite. How precisely did he do that it is not known. Fiona Forde’s biography – An inconvenient youth, Julius Malema and the new ANC – is not able to solve the conundrum. The author is a journalist who followed Malema throughout his carrier. She has had unprecedented access to him and she can show the many facets of the new rising star of South Africa politics.
The image one gets at the end of the book is that Malema is clever but uneducated: a poisonous combination. A few years ago, his final school results were leaked on the internet and published by the press. They showed that he had achieved a G in woodwork, and had performed even worse in other – heavier – subjects. All were united in laughter. Cartoons and email jokes hopped between offices. Malema, whose English is not well polished, did not help matters by launching a personal attack on the accent of the education minister, only to be forced into a grovelling apology.
Yet, Malema’s carrier is not a joke. He rose from the rank and file of the ANC to become one of the most powerful politicians in the country. He holds President Jacob Zuma on a short leash. And Zuma knows that as Malema helped him secure the ANC presidency, and later on the presidency of the country, Malema could as easily get rid of him.
Fiona Forde offers a straightforward evaluation of the guy. “He is mentally stable. He is definitely not tipping towards the insane side of life. I think it is the fact that he has very little life experience and way too much power; a lethal mix that has completely gone to his 30 year old head”.
Certainly people are anxious to see what will happen to him. His racial policies are questionable. In 2009, he launched a campaign to nationalise mines and expropriate white land without compensation, which was consistently contradicted by leaders of his own party and ridiculed in the press. In 2011, he attacked Botswana’s president calling him a slave of colonizers, ailed Mugabe as one of the greatest politicians in Africa, and kept singing Dubhula iBhunu (Shoot the Boer) until a judge ruled it constituted hate speech.
He has faced intense media scrutiny and exposure of his lavish lifestyle. He has many properties and no clear income to show for. He is now busy building a mansion valued at £1.6 million (an expensive house for South African standards) with a bunker, and he likes flashy cars and expensive watches. He is being investigated by the revenue services, the office of the public protector and an elite crime-fighting unit. Come December, the ANC will meet in Mangaung. One of the points in agenda is to expel him from the party. Certainly there are many who wish to see that happen.
Reading Forde’s book, one has the impression that Malema is not the cause of the troubles. It is the system, the inner working of the ANC, which allows for him to emerge. One more reason to hope for the ANC to lose power in a country that did not yet finish the transition from apartheid to democracy and does not need to nurture a new Mugabe, lest it would walk in the footsteps of Zimbabwe, into despair.
Fiona Forde, An inconvenient youth, Julius Malema and the new ANC. Picador Africa, Johannesburg 2011, pp. XX + 274.