In the humid blaze of Polokwane, he was the picture of cool. He wore his red tie as plumage, leading his entourage which was dressed the same – like an exotic, private mafia.
Julius Malema enjoyed the spectacle he was creating from the back of a bakkie. A flock of a thousand waited while he waved self-indulgently before allowing his charisma to take over.
Just two or three years ago, his “H” for woodwork had relegated him to the status of a fool, but nobody cared about that outside the court.
In fact, nobody talks about that any more. Everyone just wanted to hear him speak, his entertaining brand of populism the catapult for words that would pelt the president and rain down on the ruling class.
The Polokwane crowd harmonised, “Inzima lendlela, sizo zabalaza (It’s a bumpy road but we will persist [with the revolution])”. They happily shook their fists. Standing in front of the cameras like a modern-day Georges Danton, Malema easily mimicked the charm of President Jacob Zuma, his enemy.
It was a deliberate skill in a moment awash with irony. The swagger outside court was once familiar Zuma territory and Malema had clearly learnt the lessons. A broad, beaming smile and a confident kick of the heels could elicit even sympathy for the devil in that contested space.
There were the same allegations – that charges must, surely, have been trumped-up. There were the shiny black cars. There was the ebullient Mamkhize, whirling and spinning for her hero. And there was even a surprise factor: a white grandmother in old-school spectacles and a grey perm, softly waving a bunch of small ANC flags.
The enfant terrible had only one aim. He was out to thwart the old man, using Zuma’s own device of playing the unshakeable victim. It was trusted and true. Zuma had, after all, become president.
“These thieves [the NPA]… steal together with Jacob Zuma, the thief. They are sent by Jacob Zuma because he knows nothing. The illiterate Jacob Zuma who told them in Zulu, ‘Kumele nimbambe lomfana (you have to arrest this boy)’.”
Malema was on top form, careful not to criticise the judicial process as he did as much damage as he could to Zuma’s reputation.
The teasing in the vernacular, the playing to the gallery, was all part of the Malema schtick. Yet, in many ways, Wednesday’s address outside the Polokwane Regional Court was one of the most important of his life.
He’d done the unthinkable and faced but a single charge of money-laundering, leaving his detractors disappointed. He had God on his side after preacher Pastor Thusi had prayed deep into the night.
He had his people there to support him. Now to woo the waiting media.
And woo he surely did.
Malema has become the man we all want to hear. He has gone against the odds and made himself an orator, his impromptu speechmaking now his best advocate.
It’s a long time, politically, since he threw BBC journalist Jonah Fisher out of a press conference at Luthuli House two months before the World Cup.
That was a public speaking opportunity which must now seem straight out of his nightmares. Journalists battled to hold back their laughter as much as their outrage when Malema lost it.
Cornered by a forest of lights, he had gone against ANC policy and praised Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe while making a mockery of the Movement for Democratic Change.
“They [the MDC] can insult us here from air-conditioned offices of Sandton,” Malema ranted.
“We are unshaken. Why are they speaking in Sandton and not Mashonaland or Matabeleland?”
Fisher interrupted him.
“You live in Sandton.”
Immediately Malema threatened to rustle up his goons, just as he did last year at a provincial conference in Limpopo, when then-chairperson of the provincial ANCYL, Lehlohonolo Masoga, was ousted. On that occasion, Malema used the podium to order protesting delegates be removed from the hall by the police.
“Let me tell you before you are tjatjarag. You can go out,” he taunted Fisher at Luthuli House. “You are a small boy, you can’t do anything. Go out. Go out. Bastard! Go out. You bloody agent.”
That was vintage old Malema, the one many wrote off as a buffoon. Yet it was at that time that he was also beginning to pursue his line of economic freedom, direct to the poor. And some analysts got it.
Back in April 2010, David Smith, Africa correspondent for The Guardian, saw through all the “bloody agent” silliness, writing: “Malema is in fact on to something, giving a voice to the millions of black South Africans who feel cheated by the promise of multiracial democracy.
“What’s the point of voting if you’re poor, he asks, arguing that the political revolution of 1994 must now be followed by an economic one.”
The ANC, too, had realised that something more meaningful was brewing in Malema’s speaking engagements. Forget the youth constituency. Malema was interested only in talking about issues of national interest.
Just days later, his ally, ANC treasurer-general Matthews Phosa, gave a speech at the Chris Hani memorial service, saying: “We certainly cannot, on any side of the debate, tolerate hotheads who, through their words and actions, overheat the temperature of our political discourse.”
Not long after that, the shift in Malema, the public figure who could attract thousands and sell newspapers, really began to take shape.
He would intensify his defiance after Zuma’s first public rebuke, telling a press conference at the ANCYL’s Limpopo conference, that he had done nothing to undermine the ANC.
This was another world to the one in which Malema had acquired notoriety by saying, “We are prepared to die for Zuma” and “We are prepared to kill for Zuma”.
He refused to take any personal responsibility for his remarks on Zimbabwe, saying the league did not “sneak out of the country [to visit Zimbabwe]”.
“We had the blessings of President Zuma,” Malema announced, saying he was shocked at how Zuma had treated him.
“Even [former] President Thabo Mbeki, when he differed with the youth league, he never did that,” Malema pronounced in the wake of Zuma’s statement at a news conference in Durban that his conduct was “alien to the ANC”.
Since that watershed moment, Malema’s development as an orator has been unsettling, not to say astounding, especially since he was once left adrift by the ANC’s leadership to behave like a child with no discipline.
With the top six too disconnected from the streets to engage, the party itself created the old Malema. Its fear of what he could become, created the new one with the voice that attracts all the attention.
In April last year, two years after the Zuma government took power, that new Malema suddenly emerged in court to defend his singing of Dubul’ibhunu (Shoot the Boer).
In a hostile week of high theatre at the South Gauteng High Court, he took on bombastic Transvaal Agricultural Union lawyer Roelof du Plessis, liberation songs “expert” Anne-Marie Gray and the imagery of the blood of white farmers.
By the time Malema had finished testifying, his opponents were rocked to their roots.
He may be a demagogue, but the cunning landscape of the courtroom revealed his nascent power.
“You will never demoralise me,” he told Du Plessis calmly. “I am a different animal. I am a fighter.”
Those words stung. They were powerful and vast. They situated Malema at the forefront of a stuttering national democratic revolution.
The then-ANCYL president remained sure and steady. The nation, watching him live on TV, was agog.
If anyone doubted it or hoped, desperately, that Malema would falter, they were wrong.
He even unveiled some emotion as he paid tribute to the thousands of black South Africans who were forcibly removed during apartheid.
“What are you saying about those who were harmed, about landowners who were turned into slaves?”
The gallery hushed its approval.
“Change,” Malema told his supporters from on the chilly steps of the court afterwards, “means they must hand over some of the privileges.”
The crowd bellowed its approval back.
As Malema thundered on a makeshift podium last year as anarchy clattered through Joburg’s streets over his disciplinary hearing: “The revolution is on trial, not me.”
Contrary as it may have seemed, he captured the zeitgeist.
There are all the reverberations of a quiet letter posted from Morogoro, Tanzania, on December 11 1975, and signed by ANC secretary-general Alfred Nzo.
“A small… group of dissidents... have recently intensified their campaign of lies, slander and malicious distortions intended to cause disruption within the ranks of the ANC,” Nzo began.
But the dissident Malema era of 2012 is only just upon the ANC, and he is, of course, no longer a member of the party.
He reminded a packed stadium at the Gold Fields KDC West gold mine near Carletonville last month that his voice can only get louder.
“We are being intimidated… They are trying to silence us like they did in apartheid… They can arrest us tomorrow; we are not scared.
“If they kill us they will not kill our ideas. Our ideas will live on through you.”
Rustenburg police only proved him right when they showed their intention to stop him from speaking at the Impala mine on Thursday.
He hadn’t showed up anyway, but that wasn’t the point. The workers believed Malema had been shut down. And that isn’t going to happen any time soon.