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

CNN  — 

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.

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.

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

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.”