26/03/2018 05:54 SAST | Updated 26/03/2018 18:10 SAST

Firebrand Malema 'Must Move To The Centre' If He Wants To Challenge For Power

EFF leader Julius Malema has built his brand on populist rhetoric, but analysts believe he'll have to ditch extremism if he's serious about attaining power.

Known for his controversial, ultra-left and radical political statements, EFF commander-in-chief Julius Malema has become a force to be reckoned with in South Africa's political arena.

Under his leadership, Malema's party claimed 6.35 percent of the national vote when South Africa went to the polls in 2014 and has since made waves in the National Assembly, using its 25 members to disrupt, criticise, hold parliamentarians to account and push the party's political ideology.

Malema is an enigma.

With a long history in South African politics, cutting his teeth as a student leader, Malema quickly ascended the ranks of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) before being ousted from the party for his contentious sentiments. A series of allegations darkened his name before he took up the reins at his then newly formed party, something his supporters would surely like to forget.

But aside from the allegations and the race-based provocation, Malema has been described as an astute politician who is able to effectively analyse and respond to the country's political atmosphere at any given time.

POOL New / Reuters
Opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party leader Julius Malema speaks during the motion of no confidence against South African president Jacob Zuma in parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, August 8, 2017. REUTERS/Mark Wessels/Pool

Who is Malema?

Born on March 3, 1981, Malema was raised by a single mother employed as a domestic worker in Seshego, Limpopo. His political career began at the age of nine and he rose quickly through the ranks to become the national president of the Congress of South African Students (Cosas) at the age of 20.

Politics took centre stage during Malema's school years and academic results suffered for it. He was ridiculed when media reports exposed his matric results, including his infamous G for standard-grade woodwork. The reports must have struck a nerve, as Malema opted to expand his tertiary education and now holds an honours degree in philosophy from the University of South Africa.

He served as president of the ANCYL from 2008 until he was expelled from the party in 2012, prompting him to found the EFF.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
Julius Malema (R), the firebrand leader of South Africa's Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) greets his supporters during his campaign ahead of the August 3 local elections, in Etwatwa, a township near Benoni, South Africa July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

The controversy that follows him

Malema's sharp tongue has caused most of his woes.

In 2008, he made headlines by vowing that the ANCYL would take up arms to defend former president Jacob Zuma (Malema is now one of his staunchest critics) as he faced 783 counts of fraud, corruption, money laundering and racketeering. Malema was quoted as saying: "We are prepared to die for Zuma. Not only that, we are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma."

READ: Sanef Condemns 'Inflammatory Remarks' Made By EFF Leader Julius Malema To eNCA

Malema put his foot in his mouth again in 2009 when defending Zuma, but this time it resulted in a criminal conviction. He implied that Fezekile Kuzwayo – the woman who accused Zuma of rape – "had a nice time". The Johannesburg Equality Court found him guilty of hate speech and harassment, and ordered that he make an unconditional public apology and pay an amount of R50,000 to a centre for abused women.

Malema has also been taken to task for singing "shoot the boer" and currently faces the courts on charges of incitement after telling his supporters to invade unoccupied land in KwaZulu-Natal.

In 2011, City Press reported on allegations that Malema was the sole trustee of a family trust into which several senior politicians, companies, mayors, contractors and municipal managers deposited "thousands" in exchange for the facilitation of tenders and contracts or to further their political agenda.

Malema had to auction off his assets, including a large farm and luxury home, to foot the R16-million tax evasion bill he was slapped with.

Suspended ANC Youth League President Julius Malema gestures as he sings during the league's three-day annual conference in Pretoria February 10, 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: POLITICS)

What the experts think

Political analyst Ralph Mathekga said Malema's success can be pinned on the political culture in South Africa.

"We have had a very few years in a formal democracy. The EFF is aware many South Africans still appreciate street politics as a way of speaking truth to power. This is where protests and community visibility works. Its about what South Africans are familiar with. The protest culture is entrenched in the country," Mathekga said.

READ: Julius Malema: The Flame Of Economic Freedom

"The EFF and Malema are not stupid. They have a willingness to accept there is still place for street politics. As a politician, Malema is effective. But they (the EFF) are so extreme that the closest they have come to policy change is on land. It is so difficult to come to a compromise with them on policy issues."

Mathekga warned that the EFF may reach a ceiling of public support if it does not change its tack.

"Malema is no longer insecure, he can articulate himself. Back then, in the ANCYL, he was non-engaging. He's more measured now and can hold his own. But he's the same Malema, just with a more refined rhetoric."

University of South Africa political analyst Mpumelelo Mkhabela said Malema has a gift for public speaking.

"His public sentiments are now well thought out and he uses metaphors in a charismatic form. In studies of political leadership, rhetoric and charisma is a key attribute. But, increasingly, people are analysing the content rather than the delivery and the more they do so, the more Malema will be criticised. This does not mean his constituencies will jettison him though," Mkhabela said.

READ: Here Are 4 Of The Most Impactful Things Julius Malema Said On State Capture

"Malema has been good at leading the party, actively mobilising support and recruiting membership. He is a macho politician who exudes militancy. Some are attracted to that. He has carved a market out for himself."

But Mkhabela said Malema "lacks the sophistication" to drive his message to the majority of citizens.

"The majority may not be in favour of extremism, be it on the left or right. He has to jettison extremism politics and move toward the centre to challenge the ANC."

Andile Lungisa, who was Malema's second-in-charge at the ANCYL, praised his leadership.

"He is a good leader. He is honest and committed to his cause. He is a revolutionary. He is reliable. If he has taken a position, he will never change that without consulting with everybody else. I have worked with him all my life, since our young days at Cosas to the Youth League," Lungisa said.

"He is at his strongest when he engages his support base and canvasses his ideas. He does not fall short on anything; he is very clever. He has a gift of interacting with supporters."