JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - He wears a red beret, talks the language of Revolution and calls himself “Commander in Chief”.
Any echo of Venezuela’s late firebrand socialist leader Hugo Chavez is not accidental.
Julius Malema, expelled “bad boy” of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress and now facing racketeering charges he denies, this month launched the nation’s newest political movement, calling for a revolutionary jolt to Africa’s biggest economy through nationalization of mines and expropriation of white-owned land.
Citing among his heroes Chavez and retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro, the 32-year-old Malema says his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) movement plans to contest elections next year against President Jacob Zuma and the ANC, which has ruled since the end of apartheid in 1994.
“We want them out of power. They have failed our people,” Malema, wearing his trademark red beret, said in an interview this week in Johannesburg’s Sandton financial district.
The EFF, which has yet to register formally as a party, is the latest in a scattering of new political groupings that have emerged recently to try to challenge the ANC.
The ruling party remains dominant and still likely to win next year, but internal splits and enduring inequality and poverty in post-apartheid South Africa have eroded its support, especially among restive young people born after 1994.
Political analysts say that for Malema, arguably South Africa’s most high-profile and divisive politician in recent years, grabbing headlines is easy.
But as a political orphan now shut out of the mighty ANC machine that nurtured his early career, he faces a tough reality check to show he has the backing, funding and organizational skills to form a viable party and run a credible campaign.
“I don’t give him much chance,” said veteran South African journalist and political commentator Allister Sparks, adding that money-laundering charges brought last year against the former ANC Youth League leader could also derail any election bid.
Nevertheless, surveys last month by consumer insights company Pondering Panda found more than one in four young South Africans aged between 18 and 34 said they would vote for a party led by Malema in an election. In the poll, conducted by mobile phone, respondents who supported Malema said they did so because he would do more to help poor people than other parties.
“These figures show that even under ANC rule, many young people feel their lives have not improved as they expected,” Pondering Panda’s Shirley Wakefield said in a statement.
Thrown out by the ANC as a troublemaker in 2012, Malema seems unfazed by the formal accusations of racketeering that could still send him to jail over murky state tender deals. He says the charges and a $1.6 million tax bill slapped on him after he left the ANC are a “nice coincidence”.
“You can’t wage a war against capital and not expect a reaction,” said Malema, who at the height of his controversial Youth League leadership displayed a penchant for expensive Swiss watches and flashy cars. Since his fall from grace, he has been forced to auction off vehicles and properties.
“REVOLUTION IS PAINFUL”
Malema burnished his anti-capitalist credentials last year by intervening on the side of striking miners during an outbreak of violent labor unrest that killed at least 50 people, rattled investors and triggered ratings downgrades for South Africa.
Wildcat mining strikes have persisted this year, and it is no surprise that state takeover of “mines, banks and other strategic sectors” and expropriation of land for “equal redistribution” - all without compensation - are at the top of “non-negotiable” policy proposals presented by Malema’s EFF.
Such radical tenets, which have been rejected by the current ANC leadership, are guaranteed to make existing and future investors in South Africa see red. But Malema is unapologetic.
“Revolution is painful,” he said.
His EFF movement justifies its launch on the argument that when South Africa under Nelson Mandela - now 95 and critically ill in hospital - shed the shackles of apartheid two decades ago, it gained political freedom for the black majority.
But it left unfinished the quest for economic equality and a fairer redistribution of land and mineral wealth, pillars of an economy still largely in the hands of whites, the ANC says.
Malema denies his intention is to generate violence and create the kind of racially tinged social turmoil that Zimbabwe experienced after 2000 when war veterans backed by President Robert Mugabe seized land from white farmers, plunging the region’s former breadbasket into economic meltdown.
“EFF is not calling for blood on the floor. It is calling for a constructive redistribution of resources of this country in a radical way,” Malema said.
The question is whether his inflammatory brand of left-wing populism - he admits admiration for Chavez and his oil nationalizations in Venezuela - can gain traction among an increasingly youthful electorate that pays more attention to jobs and living standards than liberation credentials.
South Africa’s youth unemployment is estimated at around 50 percent, and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe has called this a “ticking time bomb”, suggesting even the ruling ANC is wary of the threat of an Arab Spring in the “Rainbow Nation”.
INVESTORS “NEED US”
Malema says he is confident backing for him and the EFF will come from the workers, the poor and unemployed, and even the middle class to challenge an ANC elite he calls “a kleptocracy, a government of thieves”.
“Our funding will come from our people,” he said.
Skeptics note wryly that the EFF policy aims include a goal of “abolishment of tenders”, the very business activity that has landed him in court for alleged money-laundering.
The ANC has largely ignored the launch of the EFF.
But one provincial leader of the party youth wing Malema once headed, Gauteng ANC Youth League chairman Lebogang Maile, wrote a newspaper opinion piece at the weekend dismissing the new movement as “reckless, bitter, arrogant populists” and accusing them of “lies and misinformation about the ANC”.
Asked why he thought his radical revolutionary message will prosper on a fast-growing continent where most governments have embraced free-market capitalism, Malema retorts quickly:
“Show me a country that practiced market-related economy which has prospered in Africa, or created an equal society, free of poverty, where the wealth is shared among people.”
He said South Africa and Zimbabwe, which hold nearly all the world’s platinum, would still draw investors even if the state controlled all the mines and other strategic sectors. “They need us more than we need them,” he said.
On the other hand, the cost of failing to redistribute South Africa’s land and wealth would be high, Malema warned.
“If you don’t do anything, the people are going to rise ... Where will the investors be then?” he said.
Editing by Will Waterman