South Africa is blessed with a number of extremely good comedians. Names like Barry Hilton, Rob van Vuuren, Eddie Eckstein and Mark Banks immediately spring to mind. But there is one person who outdoes all others in the comedy stakes, somebody who can invariably be relied upon for a good laugh, although he is not a comedian in the traditional sense. I am, of course, referring to Julius Malema, erstwhile leader of the ANC Youth League, tax evader, master of dodgy business deals and relentless spouter of verbal drivel.
Julius Malema's name crops up with monotonous regularity in South Africa's newspapers. This is the man that headed up the official youth wing of South Africa's governing party - the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), a subsidiary of the African National Congress aimed at recruiting the country's young people into politics. Malema was fond of appearing at meetings in semi-military garb, complete with beret, although he never served in any armed force in any capacity whatsoever. He liked to align himself with the veterans of South Africa's struggle against Apartheid (many of whom were jailed or forced to live in exile), and conveniently overlooked the simple fact that having been born in 1981 he was far too young to have played any part in the struggle. But Malema never allowed the facts to interfere with a good rabble-rousing speech, and for that the popular press loved him - he was always good for some controversy and a few unintelligible but juicy quotations.
Malema was elected president of the ANCYL in April 2008, in an election that was questionable and at a conference that was characterised by "unbecoming conduct". In June 2011 he was re-elected unopposed for a second term as president. Tellingly, the only other potential candidate that year declined to be nominated. But despite these minor annoyances, Malema was initially regarded as a rising star within the ANC and a future leader of both the party and the country. However, over the years his comments became steadily more controversial and idiotic until he was reduced to nothing more than a laughing-stock. Finally even the ANC had had enough of him and after a protracted series of hearings he was kicked out of the party in 2012.
Unfortunately for Malema, his troubles were only starting. He has since been charged with fraud, racketeering and money laundering (the case will be heard in April 2013), the SA Revenue Service siezed his assets when he proved unable to pay his hefty tax bill and an investigation is under way to determine his involvement in the illegal awarding of government housing tenders worth millions of Rand. Some of his assets have already been sold and others are due to be auctioned in 2013. And the ultimate humiliation was that he had to fire his bodyguards because he could no longer afford them.
A sorry tale, right? Sounds like the story of a corrupt and inept wannabe-politician who was found out before he was voted or appointed into a position where he could do real damage, right? The South African public are surely heaving a sigh of relief that this megalomaniac was not given the opportunity to show that he could be as incompetent as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, right?
WRONG. For some utterly unfathomable reason, Malema still enjoys huge popularity amongst South Africa's youth, who seem collectively unable to grasp the concept that he has been shown up as incompetent (certainly), a fraudster (probably) and a criminal (perhaps). His unpaid tax bill was (still is, in fact) a whopping R16 million, which implies that his legally-declared earnings must have been in excess of R32 million ; that doesn't even take into account whatever he managed to rake in under the table. And he talks up the cause of the working class? Despite this obvious anomaly, as well as almost universal condemnation from the local and international press and every political party in the country (including the ANC), Malema is STILL a hero to many South Africans. What is going on here? This is a man who clearly has no integrity and has shown minimal consideration for the plight of the poverty-stricken masses he puports to be fighting for. But people still love him! That is just too weird ... will somebody please explain this to me?
Malema's period as a public figure comprised one disgraceful and shambolic incident after another. Here is a brief timeline of his fall from grace:
[Update 2] In May 2013 the courts attached property belonging to both Malema and the ANC Youth League in order to pay an outstanding legal bill of over R110 000. This dated back to a 2012 lawsuit brought against Malema and two others by Helen Zille, leader of the Democratic Alliance (South Africa's main opposition party). The lawsuit was dropped but Malema, his colleagues and the ANCYL were ordered to pay all legal fees ... which they never did.
[Update 3] In July 2013 Julius Malema formed his own political party - the Economic Freedom Fighters, or EFF. The party's manifesto provides for amusing reading and contains a number of proposals that are absurdly out of touch with reality.