Fiery South African opposition politician Julius Sello Malema is, in person and away from the spotlight where his brand of rhetoric has inflamed intense passions for and against him, a mellow fellow, smart, urbane and very ambitious.
He wants to take the reins of this country away from the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
Just turned 39 earlier this month, Malema is clear that one day he will lead South Africa — he sees a pan-Africanist future, in which colonial borders have been swept into the dustbin of history, alongside apartheid and any other relics of this continent’s troubled past.
His calm demeanour — a sharp contrast to the firebrand who routinely works up chanting, dancing and singing crowds — belies a steely resolve which has already seen him through a very tough early life and has him set upon a course that might change South Africa and even the whole continent, if he were to get his way.
From his roots as part of an extended single-parent family, ruled over by his stern but loving grandmother Koko Sarah, who died last year, Mr Malema has drawn on his own suffering and that of so many other Africans as a result of the inequalities inherent in colonial and, in South Africa’s case, post-colonial apartheid rule.
GRANNY'S TOUGH LOVE
That foundational experience hurled him at just nine years of age into the world of politics, joining the ANC where he was trained in chanting, singing and other skills of activism – along with pulling down election posters of any party but his own.
Mr Malema owns up to the fact that he spent a lot of time in his early years in trouble with the police, not merely for his political activities, but because he was, in his own words, “always getting into trouble, even at school”.
But his grandmother got him out of that trouble almost every time. He is both inspired by her life and strength and clearly still grieves for her.
She died just two days before Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) — which he formed in 2013 after being thrown out of the ANC — held its final rally before the 2019 national elections which saw the EFF grow in every region of the country, increasing its share of the total vote dramatically to almost 11 per cent.
But, says Malema, that rally was one of hardest things he has ever had to do.
Literally fighting back tears, he inspired disenchanted South Africans to rally behind his party’s Afro-socialist Leninist programme, which envisages not just some but full nationalised control of all the country’s land and of key industries and sectors, such as mining and banking.
Regarding land and consequences of colonial and apartheid land-grabs from black indigenous people, Malema is adamant that all land must be “returned to the people”.
In this he refers not merely to agricultural land, but all of it – including private plots in urban areas.
His solution to arguments about private property rights, as embedded in South Africa’s negotiated 1996 constitution, is that the constitution be changed. That way, state takeover of all land will be constitutional and legal and that formerly private ownership of land be replaced with, for example, 99-year leases.
He sees no problem with this method of dealing with the tricky issue of land in a country where the “white tribe”, the Afrikaner descendants of Dutch, French, German and English settlers, still own much of the agricultural land and who, they have repeatedly warned, will literally fight to the death to protect what they feel is rightfully theirs.
He is sure that, once he and his party are in power — which he is also sure will happen, if not in the 2024 election, then the one after that — he will make the constitutional changes that will allow legal expropriation of all land.
“We are going through a constitutional process right now to allow expropriation (without compensation). We must remove all these vestiges of the colonial past,” he says.
With the laws putting land — and key economic sectors — fully into state hands in place, he says then the state will be able to “deal” with any opposition to the removal of private property rights as they now exist.
But he did not expand on what that might entail.
He is equally unrepentant about dealing with the current governing party, his former political “home”, reiterating previous remarks that, if the ANC engages in suppression or oppression of his party and other opposition, the EFF would resort to “armed struggle”, just as Nelson Mandela and others of his generation saw that an armed wing was needed for ANC to confront the apartheid regime.
He seems entirely untroubled by the implications of this line of action.
Rather than leaving the country impoverished, as happened in Zimbabwe or Venezuela when radical nationalisation and redistribution programmes were undertaken there, Malema feels that empowering indigenous South Africans — by which means those of black African heritage — will help unlock the dynamic potential of the country, regardless of the interim disturbances his radical policies might have created.
He sees no insurmountable problem with his approach which, by implication, means that should he and his party come to power, South Africa would be “remade” from top to bottom, whether minority groups like the Afrikaners, or whites as a whole who make up about eight per cent of the population, or any other grouping, like it or not.
Equally, his vision for Africa is every bit as radical.
He wants a pan-African federation covering the whole continent — similar to the European Union.
REPLACE OLD GUARD
He is extremely positive about the future of the continent as a whole, especially as some of the old guard of “strongmen” in Africa die out to be replaced by a new wave of African leaders like himself who won’t be tied down by external expectations of how to run an economy and a country.
He rejects the notion that governments are not good at running businesses, like all other African states, are having keeping the lights on, providing basic services such as water and refuse removal and running functional and efficient bureaucracies.
Malema admits that in his rise to the top of his own rapidly growing party, it has cost him a great deal personally, but he is undeterred, just as he is determined that not only will he one day run South Africa, but that it will be an Afro-socialist Leninist state, with the majority of the “heights of the economy” in state control.
On how Afro-socialism has failed in Tanzania and other places where it has been tied, he does not concede that the system of governance is at fault.
He is certain that what he sees must happen is inevitable – presumably, that view arising from his Leninist leanings, which in turn are informed by Marxist thinking.
On his controversial past, he has been, he says, the victim of a biased media, with people who are not “real” journalists but instead pushing an agenda to discredit him.
But he also admits to making mistakes, such as an infamous incident with a BBC reporter who was abused verbally and thrown out of one of Malema’s press conferences by him.
“I did apologise for that,” says Malema, pointing out that many know about that incident but few remember that he also apologised.
On his other remarks against journalists, and comparisons with his view and that of US President Donald Trump regarding the media, Malema says all he wants is fair and professional coverage, not a media that only focuses on mistakes made or on sensationalism.
Under a Malema presidency, and regardless of past clashes with journalists which have seen Malema in court more than once, he says there will still be freedom of speech.
“We must live in a constitutional state, with one law for all, and everything must be done legally,” Malema insists.
But even as he smiles easily, is personable and soft in receiving and handling even tough questions, there is an inner steel that is not concealable.
Malema is clearly determined to do whatever needs to be done to, first defeat his former comrades within the ANC, and take South Africa – and Africa too – towards what he sees as its inevitable victory and fulfilment of its promise for all its (indigenous) peoples.
Questioned on comments such as saying, in 2016, that the EFF was “not calling for the slaughter of white people, at least not for now”, having been convicted for hate speech for singing the “struggle song” Dubula iBunu (shoot the Boer, meaning white farmers) and for talking about “cutting the throat of whiteness”, Malema says he was in all instances speaking metaphorically.
“I do not mean that we must actually cut white people’s throats, but that we must end the ‘whiteness’ thinking that still sees whites as better than blacks,” says Malema.
Whether he can push through the radical reforms and changes he wants, if and when he comes to power, and do so without instigating a race and class war in the process, is another question entirely.
But that Julius Malema will play a major role in this country’s future, and Africa’s too, is something of which Malema himself holds with a calm but unbending certainty that will be fulfilled.