Today he’s a member of the provincial executive committee of the ANC in the North West. Youth politics passed him by entirely. Malema, meanwhile, had pushed on to greater heights. A year later he ran again for the position of president of Cosas.
But in the run-up to that conference he found himself in a bind. He had a physical temper to match his vicious tongue and he pummelled a peer’s face so badly with his fists that his opponent’s mother wouldn’t allow him to leave the house for weeks because his face was such a mess.
She threatened to bring charges against Malema.
The Cosas elections were only a few months away and Malema knew that if the boy laid a charge, there was a good chance he wouldn’t make it. So he asked (Freddie) Ramaphakela to talk to the boy’s family instead. Ramaphakela obliged. And it turned out to be nothing that a small donation couldn’t put right. When I reminded Malema of this all these years later, he threw his head back and laughed.
Malema went on to win the elections and become the national president of Cosas in 2001. This forced him to move to Johannesburg to be close to the national offices of the student movement, which were housed in the ANC’s then headquarters at Shell House in Noord Street, close to the taxi rank.
Malema headed straight for Hillbrow with his friends Victor Chepape and Priscilla Monama and they rented a small pad in the Fontana block of flats. A brief stint in Ponte Towers followed until he finally settled down in a flat opposite Oriental Plaza in Fordsburg, on the edge of the city centre.
By then the school books were well and truly forgotten, despite the fact that Malema was still enrolled at Mohlakaneng and registered to sit his matric examinations at the end of 2001. But Seshego was more than three hours away from Johannesburg by car and given the physical distance that separated him from his classroom, Malema decided instead to attend a few classes at Prudence High School in Tladi, Soweto. Mostly, though, he stayed away from school altogether.
Malema still sat his matric at the end of that year, but fared badly and failed most of his subjects. He got a C in English, a D in history and an E in his mother tongue, sePedi, as well as in Afrikaans. There was an F in geography and a G in woodwork, both of them at standard grade.
Years later, his matric results started popping up in e-mail inboxes all over the country when one of his many adversaries tried to shame him and began to circulate his school results widely.
Maropeng, the mother of his child, contacted him to warn him what was happening. But there was little he could do about it. Before long a copy of his results certificate landed in the lap of the media who gleefully splashed it across the front pages of the newspapers. It was the G in woodwork that tickled most minds.
“At least we know he’ll never be a cabinet maker,” quipped one wit at the time.
In his own defence, Malema says he never actually wrote the woodwork exam. Rather than not show up, “I just went in and wrote my name at the top of the exam and walked out” without writing another word, he says.
Did he feel shame or embarrassment about his results?
“That’s what it was,” he says. “I was an activist first. I still am. I always will be.”
Bravado aside, I believe the exposé of his school results got to Malema. By nature, he’s a very proud person.
What’s also true is that he is extremely clever, but he had failed that one exam against which so many people benchmark an individual’s academic ability. What was telling was a short text message, which he had received from the University of South Africa (Unisa) in December 2010 and which he sent to me soon after. In a few words it explained that he had completed his two-year diploma in youth development. It somehow seemed important to him to have it known.
A few weeks later he enrolled for a Bachelor of Arts degree at Unisa. Though his major has still to be decided, he has started out with two subjects: communications and African languages. Neither is a subject one would associate with Malema, least of all communications. His track record for meaningful dialogue is often wanting. But he insists it’s a stepping stone and that his major is more likely to reflect his chosen career of politics, which he feels will be enhanced by a university degree.
He seems to take his studies seriously. In May 2011, when the local government elections took place, I was in Polokwane and I asked if I could meet him after he had cast his vote in Seshego. The short answer was no. The long answer was that he was going home to study as he had an exam the following day. That was the day the counting of the votes was under way and Malema was nowhere to be seen at the Pretoria count centre.
He didn’t show his face again until the Friday, and when he did, he was up to his usual tricks, telling reporters he was unwilling to debate Lindiwe Mazibuko, the national spokesperson of the Democratic Alliance. She was only the “teagal”, he argued. And she should stay in the kitchen serving the madam. It was the madam he wanted to meet. The madam was, of course, Helen Zille.
However, there was less wit and more militancy to him during his Cosas days in Johannesburg. In 2002 he kicked up a political storm in the centre of the city when he led Cosas in a violent march throughout the downtown area.
The Education Department had said it wanted to enforce a ruling that the gates to all schools be locked during teaching hours to try to keep crime from their doors as a safety measure for its learners.
Cosas was against the move and decided to stage a protest in response. The authorities forbade the march, but the thousands-strong student movement defied the order and went on a rampage. The marchers looted shops, smashed windows, turned hawkers’ stands upside down, damaged parked cars and left an unsightly trail of destruction in their wake.
Smuts Ngonyama was the spokesperson for the ANC at the time. He called Malema aside a few days later, demanding that he do something about what had happened. Malema shrugged off his request.
In the meantime, Malema had been drawn under the wing of (Winnie) Madikizela-Mandela, who began to groom him in the art of politics and rebellion. He would spend hours in her company, and often days at her Soweto home, where he found shelter through thick and thin.
And he was quick to return the compliment when she, as a member of Parliament, was convicted of fraud and theft in 2003. He told the courts they were being racist towards the Mother of the Nation.
“We are prepared to do anything in our power to ensure that she is not in jail,” he touted at the time. “If that means burning the prison she is locked in, so be it.”
She didn’t forget him for it and sat by his side throughout the nine-day hate speech trial in 2011.
“He is my product,” she now claims.
“She taught me public speaking and confidence,” he says in response.
“His rebellious attitude is part of the process of growing up,” she adds. “He will make a great leader one day.”
Yet Malema was not thinking beyond his future in the ANCYL when he returned home to Polokwane in 2003 after his tenure as Cosas president ended. His friends had been lobbying for him to come home and run for the position of provincial secretary of the organisation.
“We wanted a more militant youth league to bring about change in Limpopo because we had entered into a slump,” says Lehlogonolo Masoga. He had been a close friend of Malema’s since the mid-1990s when their paths first crossed, at a time when Masoga was rising through the provincial ranks of the South African Students Congress (Sasco) while Malema was working his way up through the provincial structures of Cosas. Though the two young men were different in character, they both opted for a militant style of politics.
“I liked his bravery,” Masoga says. “And I liked his fearlessness. He stands by what he believes in. And he is never afraid to put words on his views. Not everyone has the kind of courage that he has. And very few can think on their feet like he does. And he had what we were looking for in a provincial secretary back then. We were looking for change and we knew we would have to put up a fight.”
“You see, at that time the youth league had become a transmitter belt for the ANC,” says David Masondo, who was a member of the ANCYL as well as the Young Communist League then. Today he is Limpopo’s MEC for finance.
“We were concerned about the macro-economic policies that were being introduced by Thabo Mbeki, but they were not really being contested by the youth league. So we had to shake it up,” says Masondo.
And Julius Malema was nominated to do the shaking. So he challenged Harris Rikhotso for the position of provincial secretary at the end of 2003 and he won the contest with ease. Masondo was elected provincial chairman at the same time.
It was a position Malema held for several terms and with each passing year his power base began to grow. He did not confine himself to the ranks of the youth, but mingled closely with the provincial leaders of the ANC and through them was exposed to the possibilities that came with party politics.