South Africa's Julius Malema: Populist or opportunist?

Story highlights

  • The politician has turned into one of the president's fiercest critics
  • As his fiery anti-government rhetoric grows, so does his popularity
  • His brash, populist image connects with the poor, some say
  • Critics say he seizes on discontent to spread his anti-government message

South African Julius Malema is a populist, an opportunist, or both, depending on whom you ask.

Donning his trademark beret, he taunts his way to the front pages with ferocious soundbites against the government.

And as his anti-government rhetoric grows, so do the headlines.

Expelled from the ruling party's youth leadership earlier this year, the political rebel is making a comeback. And he is using the labor conflict in the nation to spread his message.

Malema and the mining crisis
Malema and the mining crisis


    Malema and the mining crisis


Malema and the mining crisis 08:49

Workers at Lonmin mine in the nation's northwest -- the world's third-largest platinum producer -- went on strike in August to demand higher pay. In the ensuing days, 44 people died as a result of the protests, including nearly three dozens shot by police in one day.

Special interests hijack miners' strike
Special interests hijack miners' strike


    Special interests hijack miners' strike


Special interests hijack miners' strike 02:37

Fuming strikers, fueled by outrage over the deaths of their colleagues, reiterated their calls for higher pay. Unrest spread to nearby mines.

South African miner strike spreads
South African miner strike spreads


    South African miner strike spreads


South African miner strike spreads 02:53

Malema stepped into the fray, calling for nationwide strikes and pushing his longterm message of nationalizing mines. He sang and danced with striking mine workers, and lashed out at the government for not doing enough to reach out to the masses.

"We continue to play that role to ensure that the working class in South Africa does not become leaderless because those who are charged with such a responsibility have taken leave from discharging such responsibility," he told CNN's Christiane Amanpour.

But critics say his brash, populist message is all a show to push his political agenda.

"It's entirely methodical. He doesn't organize strikes. He just tries to feed of them," said Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy in Johannesburg.

"He reads in the newspapers that there's a strike, goes there and makes a speech. ... A loud young man trying to amass money by pretending that he's the voice of poor people. It's very sad."

Miners celebrate release from jail
Miners celebrate release from jail


    Miners celebrate release from jail


Miners celebrate release from jail 02:29

However, some of the poor and the disenfranchised are buying into his message, some say.

Life of a miner in South Africa
Life of a miner in South Africa


    Life of a miner in South Africa


Life of a miner in South Africa 02:52

"For many, Malema is the right man at the right time, championing the needs of those at the bottom end of the social ladder," said Ayo Johnson, director of ViewPoint Africa, which sells content on the continent to the media.

"He can rally a crowd and play to the international media. He is a firebrand that is in keeping with his bad boy, tough talking and macho man image. Never shy from the limelight, he relishes an opportunity to rebrand himself after many thought was his end."

In April: South Africa's ANC expels Malema

Path to the ruling party

Malema, 31, is no stranger to controversy. His road to fame has been tempestuous.

The former youth leader was born in 1981 in Seshego, a segregated black township in South Africa. He was raised by a single mother, who was a domestic worker.

Malema joined the ruling African National Congress before he reached his teens. His job: to rip off posters of the opposition party from buildings.

He shot to the spotlight four years ago when he was picked as the youth wing leader of the party in a hotly contested vote.

Soon after, he was ruffling feathers.

He once slammed an international journalist, saying he has "white tendency." He called for regime change in neighboring Botswana.

He also demanded the nationalization of mines and the seizure of white-owned farms in South Africa, especially incendiary calls in a nation with a history of racial tensions.

And in 2010, he came under fire for singing an apartheid-era song that includes the words "kill the Boer," a reference to white farmers.

The party, accusing him of sowing division and hate speech, first suspended him, and then shot down his appeal, expelling him in April.

Now, Malema is the subject of a criminal investigation over allegations that he used his political position to influence government tenders. He has denied the allegations.

While he has dismayed potential investors and the nation's white minority, he retains some grassroots support.

"It's a battle of hearts and minds, and to the poor, Malema seems to have found himself and some much needed friends," Johnson said.

But Friedman disagrees.

"The only people who think he is a champion of poor people are journalists because he makes for colorful copy," Friedman said. "There are some people who are interested in him -- some upwardly mobile people who think his approach will advance their interests. But there are also some people who think he is a buffoon."

Malema versus the president

Once a big supporter of President Jacob Zuma, the two have broken ties despite his role in propelling him to power in 2009. Malema was instrumental in the president's election, and traipsed the nation campaigning on his behalf.

In recent years, he has turned into one of the president's fiercest critics, accusing his administration of failing to improve the lives of the poor. His chants of "down with Zuma" are a common fixture at gatherings.

"It is under President Zuma we have seen a critical voice being suppressed," he said. "We have seen, under President Zuma, democracy being replaced with dictatorship."

Today, Malema's life is a far cry from his upbringing.

Despite losing his job in the ruling party, he leads a lavish lifestyle that includes mansions, fancy cars and trips overseas, according to Friedman.

"He is currently unemployed, yet he lives very well," he said. "Because there are very wealthy people who find him useful."

Just like his life, his legacy is one of contrasts.

"He has not changed the face of South African politics, but he has left a mark as a political figure surrounded by controversy, who at this historical junction is trying to find himself again," Johnson said.

It would seem ideal for the controversial figure.

In 2011, Forbes named him one of the 10 youngest power men In Africa.

A year before, Time magazine listed him as one of the least influential people.

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