ANC Youth League President Julius Malema, set for re-election next week, is likely to use the vote as a platform to advance his radical political agenda and his own ambitions one day to run South Africa.
With access to millions of young supporters, the league is a potent force in Africa’s largest economy and is often used by the ruling African National Congress to float policy balloons or by party big-wigs to promote their own political aspirations.
It also has a long and distinguished pedigree, founded in 1944 by anti-apartheid icons Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, Reuters reports.
ANC leaders will closely follow next week’s vote and while Malema’s re-election will not result in policy changes it could aggravate tension between the youth league and President Jacob Zuma.
Youth league presidents are often regarded as king-makers in the ANC and unless the friction with Zuma is defused, Malema could back another candidate to lead the ruling party and Africa’s strongest economy.
Nowadays, Malema is one of South Africa’s most recognisable figures, commanding more media coverage than any minister with controversial statements on nationalising mines or seizing white-owned farmland, and singing anti-apartheid anthems that advocate shooting whites.
Malema has a fondness for champagne, expensive watches and luxury cars. But his background as the son of a maid from one of the country’s poorest regions has endeared him to millions of disenchanted black South Africans, and he largely represents their views.
“There is a huge army of disillusioned young people who’ve been left behind or feel the new democracy is not delivering fast enough,” Financial Mail editor Barney Mthombothi wrote.
“Malema’s demagoguery falls on fertile ground. Society has failed them. Malema is their only hope. Their penury is Malema’s prosperity.”
Seventeen years since the end of apartheid and white minority rule, millions of poor South Africans live in abject poverty, 40 percent of the adult population are unemployed and 12 million people are on state handouts.
Malema’s rhetoric often antagonises the country’s 5.1 million taxpayers but resonates with the poor.
“Middle-class urban dwellers detest him and think he is a buffoon. His support comes from poor black South Africans, who see him as someone who stands up to whites, big businesses and farmers,” said independent political analyst Nic Borain.
Even though Malema’s views have got nowhere near government policy, analysts said investors were paying greater interest to the young leader, who was instrumental in Zuma’s rise to the ANC leadership in 2007.
However, there appears to a growing rift between the youth leader and Zuma, with Malema suggesting that the man he once said he would “kill” for could not count on his support at an ANC leadership election next year.
Party insiders say Malema is angry over being disciplined last year for bringing the party into disrepute, and at Zuma for putting his nationalisation plans on the back-burner.
Instead, he is thought to want a new ANC leader who will be more sympathetic to radical views that may fuel his long-term ambitions.
“Julius Malema might have an agenda that is longer and more ambitious. It is a realistic possibility that he could be a central ANC leader, possibly the president of the country in ten years time,” Borain said.