How Far Can Populism Go in South Africa?

The Rise of Julius Malema

Malema at an election rally in Johannesburg, May 2019 Philimon Bulawayo / REUTERS

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,

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