Julius Malema, the enfant terrible of South African politics, vows that his enemies have nowhere to hide. Racist white farmers, corrupt politicians, the rich and the powerful—all are targets in his new television commercial as he leads his radical far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) into South Africa’s May 8th general elections. Malema has sharpened his attention-getting tactics during a decade in national politics and now hopes to capitalize on growing public anger over the slow pace of economic and social change since the end of apartheid.

His strategy is to siphon enough votes from the ruling African National Congress to act as a kingmaker in several important battlegrounds. If he succeeds, a country known for pragmatic reconciliation will have taken a worrying turn toward divisive populism. Malema’s party has already pushed the ANC, which has governed since the end of apartheid, to adopt more radical positions. Concerned that the EFF is outflanking it on the left and attracting younger voters, the ANC now backs a constitutional change that would allow the expropriation of land without compensation.

In many ways, Malema embodies South Africa’s dysfunctions. The EFF’s calls for land grabs and the nationalization of mines and banks have found a ready audience in a country with sky-high unemployment—more than 50 percent of young people are jobless—and stubborn divides between racial groups and the rich and poor. A quarter-century after South Africa’s first democratic elections, whites still own the majority of land and are far better off than blacks. But instead of trying to heal South Africa’s wounds, Malema has deepened them. As the election nears, he faces mounting criticism from civil society groups for his inflammatory attacks on opponents, as well as questions about the EFF’s sources of funding.


The son of a domestic worker, Malema grew up poor in Limpopo, a mainly rural province in northern South Africa. He joined the ANC as a boy and rose through its student ranks, before making his name as the provocative head of the ANC’s youth league during the 2009 elections. Malema was militant in his support for the ANC’s then leader, Jacob Zuma, telling a rally of young supporters: “We are prepared to die for Zuma … We are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma.” Zuma, in turn, prophesied that Malema would one day become president.

Malema became known not only for his sharp tongue but also for his fancy lifestyle. Despite his modest official salary, he lived in the posh Sandton suburb of Johannesburg, drove a Mercedes-Benz, and wore a 250,000 rand ($18,000) Breitling watch. Malema celebrated his 29th birthday with a stadium bash where he sprayed the revelers with pricy French champagne from the stage.  

In South Africa, where the poorly educated black majority has few economic opportunities, climbing the ranks of the ruling party is one of the few ways to escape poverty. Malema himself argued that he could not inspire the poor if he lived in a shack. But his rise was dogged by allegations of corruption. South Africa’s anti-graft watchdog accused him of improperly benefitting from contracts for building and maintaining roads in his home province. (Malema denied any wrongdoing, and the case was never tried). And in 2012, the tax authorities hit him with a 16 million rand ($1.2 million) bill for unpaid taxes; Malema had to pay up when the government threatened to seize his assets. A year earlier, he had fallen out with Zuma, and in 2012, the ANC expelled him for his controversial public comments. Malema declared he was going to become a farmer, growing tomatoes and cabbages, and briefly retreated to Limpopo, before founding the EFF, in 2013.

Instead of trying to heal South Africa’s wounds, Malema has deepened them.

With the EFF came a new-look Malema. Gone was the fancy watch, replaced by a red beret and red workers’ overalls. In the next year’s general election, his new party received six percent of the popular vote and entered parliament. Over the next two years, the EFF helped lead a successful campaign to force Zuma to repay taxpayer money spent on upgrades to his private rural home. Last year, Zuma’s own party forced him out of power amid overwhelming allegations of corruption and mismanagement. Cyril Ramaphosa, his successor as ANC leader and president of South Africa, is now attempting to win back support for the party by cleaning up the corruption that metastasized under Zuma, and by restoring integrity to damaged state institutions.

Since the 2014 election, the EFF’s tactics have grown ever more extreme. In parliament, Malema and other EFF MPs routinely ignore the speaker's rulings. They seem to relish getting thrown out by the security guards. On fiery red election posters, a smiling Malema brands himself “the son of the soil,” his military-style beret at a jaunty tilt. The self-proclaimed “commander-in-chief” of the EFF, he heads an army of angry young “fighters” who have trashed H&M stores over an allegedly racist shirt design and smashed up outlets of the cell phone provider Vodacom.

As it has gained prominence, the EFF has also faced allegations of corruption. Malema’s longtime deputy, Floyd Shivambu, has been accused in local media reports of receiving funds from VBS Mutual Bank, which was liquidated in late 2018 after a report commissioned by South Africa’s central bank found it had been looted. Journalists have also revealed Malema’s close relationship with the businessman Adriano Mazzotti, who has been accused by the South African revenue service of failing to pay taxes, and has reportedly admitted to cigarette smuggling.

In keeping with his volatile persona, Malema reacts angrily to criticism. As ANC youth leader, he threw a BBC journalist out of a press conference, calling him a “bastard” with “that white tendency.” He routinely insults journalists, likening them to government spies under apartheid. In March, after Malema mischievously tweeted a screenshot showing a journalist’s phone number, his followers threatened to rape and murder her. The South African National Editors’ Forum has launched a court case against Malema and the EFF, citing persistent threats and intimidation.      

Journalists are not Malema’s only targets. He once accused an opposition leader of appointing “boyfriends and concubines” to her cabinet “so that she can continue to sleep around with them.” In 2011, a court found him guilty of hate speech for singing a struggle song called “Shoot the Boer.” “We are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at least for now,” he told supporters in 2016, outside a court where he was appearing on charges of inciting land grabs. He has accused South Africans of Indian descent of racism toward blacks and of “owning everything” in KwaZulu-Natal province, the Zulu heartland and a stronghold of Zuma supporters, where the EFF is trying to make inroads. 

The EFF has gained traction both because of Zuma’s incompetence and alleged corruption and because the liberal Democratic Alliance, the biggest opposition party, has made several misteps. The EFF is currently polling at 11 percent, with the ANC at 61 percent and the DA at 19 percent. The figures show a slight increase for the EFF and slight drops for the ANC and the DA since the last election, in 2014. Polls in South Africa’s provinces suggest that the EFF is currently winning enough support (and the ANC has declined far enough) to help form a coalition government only in Gauteng, South Africa’s economic powerhouse and the home of the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria. Malema has tapped into the discontent that is building among South Africa’s frustrated youth. But many South Africans remain nervous about a man seemingly willing to say anything in the pursuit of power. 

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