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He is leading pupils, but his schooling track record hardly qualifies him as a role-model.
It took Congress of SA Students (Cosas) president Julius Malema, 21, seven years to complete high school - the excitement of being a Cosas member, he says, was behind his failing two of those years.
Last Friday he presided over the rampage through the streets of Johannesburg by thousands of unruly pupils who looted, stole, and smashed car windows as they went - ostensibly to protest against a Gauteng department of education directive that schools close their gates during teaching hours for safety reasons.
Authorities had refused permission for the march, fearing the violence and destruction of previous Cosas protests.
Malema is studying law through Unisa after eventually matriculating last year from Mohlakaneng High School in Seshego, Limpopo.
A reliable source, who did not want to be identified, said Malema's academic record had been poor and he had repeated both grades 8 and 9.
"He never obtained more than 60 percent in any subject. After spending seven years at secondary school, he did not even obtain an exemption."
The source said it was puzzling that, after not attending classes in Seshego from May to September last year because he was in Johannesburg, Malema had been allowed to sit for his final exams.
"He was instrumental in influencing his classmates to refuse to do mathematics. Now he is instrumental in demanding that history be a compulsory subject."
The source said Malema had a reputation for being "the most undisciplined fellow at the school", and had not had good relationships with any of his teachers.
Other sources recalled that "he could call the former MEC (Edgar Mushwana) on his cellphone at any time".
Mushwana said he knew Malema "fairly well and had engaged him as a young activist".
Malema said he had failed two consecutive grades "because he could not contain his excitement about joining Cosas".
"I got excited after joining Cosas and failed grade 8. In 1997 I was expelled for political activities and pleaded to be taken back, and repeated Grade 9 in 1998."
Malema denied allegations that he had been ill-disciplined or disruptive - and said he had reasons for not being at school last year.
"I was a gentleman and used to wear school uniform. I was not always in school because of organisational activities. Last year I moved to Joburg, and an arrangement was made by the two departments (Gauteng and Limpopo education departments). I attended classes at Prudence Secondary School and wrote my exams at Mohlakaneng."
Attempts to confirm there had been such an arrangement were unsuccessful.
However, Malema maintains that Cosas was not responsible for the looting, and that thieves had hijacked the march.