Durban - Born in the township of Seshego in Polokwane, Limpopo, on March 3, 1981, Julius Malema, the founding leader of the EFF, turned 40 on Wednesday, and as always public opinion regarding his political life was divided on the day.
To some, he is a solid African leader who is determined to liberate the African child from the yoke of white dominance, while some of his critics think he is “a Gucci revolutionary” who is exploiting the ever-growing resentment of poor South African youth who feel let down by the ruling ANC since 1994.
That aside, his political story is fascinating, although some claim he is behaving like the same ANC politicians he criticises at every turn.
According to several accounts, and in his own words, he drew his political inspiration from the late Peter Mokaba, a former leader of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL).
While going to Mohlakaneng High School in Limpopo as the son of a single mother, who was a domestic worker, Malema, then aged nine, began his political career by joining Masupatsela, a movement aligned to the ANC and which was on a campaign to remove election posters of the now-defunct National Party, which were placed outside various police stations.
Later, aged 14, Malema was elected as both the chairperson of an ANCYL branch in his home area of Seshego and its regional chair in 1995. On the rise, in 1997, he became the chair of the Congress of South African Students (Cosas) in Limpopo.
In 2001, he started attracting media and public attention after he was elected as the national president of Cosas.
In one video which trends now and then, and believed to have been leaked in an attempt to discredit him as a man who went rogue from the very beginning, Malema is seen howling at the late Jackson Mthembu, who was trying to address an ANCYL gathering.
That was many years ago and Malema looked very young in the video, but he was fiery and had to be kicked out of the venue.
In 2008, still on the rise politically, he was elected as the leader of the ANC Youth League during a chaotic conference in Bloemfontein where some delegates exposed their buttocks.
As a sidekick of former president Jacob Zuma, Malema started courting more controversy and he was hauled to court after claiming that Khwezi, the woman who laid rape charges against the former president (Zuma was later acquitted), had a “nice time” because she did not leave immediately. People Opposed to Women Abuse (Powa) took him to the Equality Court and he was fined R50 000.
But then there was a spectacular fallout between Zuma and Malema when the ANCYL he led caused drama when they stormed a side meeting of ANC officials during the ruling party's 2010 national general council in Durban.
That was the beginning of the end for Malema in the ANC as the party charged him for his utterances about regime change in Botswana.
He was expelled in 2011 and attempts to have the expulsion set aside during the ANC 2012 elective conference in Mangaung failed when his appeal letter was not considered for discussion by conference delegates.
Even though he once claimed that his blood “will always be green and gold” (ANC colours), on July 26, 2013 he led the formation of the EFF and proved to be a formidable opponent of the ruling party.
Building the party and restoring the many bridges he burnt while he was with the ANC, in January 2014, he met former IFP leader Inkosi Mangosuthu Buthelezi and apologised for calling him a “factory fault”, and for saying he would campaign at his home and recruit his wife and children to join the ANC.
He then started his party’s campaign for the 2014 national and provincial elections by criss-crossing the country. His party only won 25 seats. Five years later, when the elections were held again, it increased its tally to 44 – a sign of some serious growth.
His true test came in August 2016 when the country held its local government elections and the “Malema effect” was felt by the ANC. His fairly new party did well, in fact, it chipped away significant votes from the ANC which for the first time since 1996 (first local government elections) failed to muster an outright majority in major cities like Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay – and it was ousted.
Malema’s EFF did the unthinkable when it went to bed with the DA to oust the ANC through a coalition government. However, the coalition with the DA caused ructions within his party and some of his critics claimed – without evidence – that for the deal, he was promised donations by the same donors who supported the DA.
The coalition later collapsed in July 2019 when the differences with the DA started spilling into the public domain.
Ahead of his party's elective conference in December 2019, in a warning shot to a possible challenge for his position by the likes of Dali Mpofu, he said: "I have never lost a conference", and indeed, he retained his position uncontested.
From 2014, when his party occupied parliamentary benches for the first time, Malema became a thorn in Zuma’s side. It was Malema who led the party's now-famous “Pay back the money” campaign, which was meant to force Zuma to pay for the alleged extras he benefited from when his Nkandla home was given a security upgrade. He also led his party when it disrupted Zuma’s speeches, drawing the ire of parliamentary bouncers and expulsion from the house.
As Malema grows older, there is no doubt that he is maturing politically, becoming more astute in diplomacy, but still holds true to the rhetoric of nationalism. Perhaps he learnt from his reconciliation with Buthelezi, and Malema and Zuma buried the hatchet and met over a tea in Nkandla on February 5 this year. His visit was dubbed agenda setting as thereafter the MKMVA went to Nkandla to voice their support for Zuma, who is defying the Zondo Commission.
Malema's visit to Nkandla was unexpected and the NFP, ANC Women’s League have since visited the former president at his home. The ANC top six is expected to follow Malema’s path.
As he turns 40 and with more years ahead of him, it remains to be seen whether his dream of becoming South Africa's president and removing African borders will be realised.