He was the leader of the Youth League of the ruling party, the African National Congress – a position once held by Nelson Mandela. But he was expelled for indiscipline, re-emerging as a vocal opponent of under-fire President Jacob Zuma.
“This is a violent government…. This is a murderous government,” Malema told NBC News from his Johannesburg home. “Jacob Zuma and his government are an embarrassment to South Africa. They embarrass us around the world.”
Some see Malema as a political agitator and a threat to the delicate racial harmony of South African society. He caused controversy when he was accused of publicly singing “Shoot the Boer,” a so-called “struggle song” that appears to call for the killing of white farmers.
Yet, he claims to speak for a generation of black South Africans who feel that the transformation of the economy during democratic times has been too slow.
“The conditions of our people are worsening. The gap between the rich and the poor has widened,” Malema explained. “One of the white chaps was trying to make a joke to me and said ‘had we known that it was going to be this nice for us white South Africans, we would have fought for this democracy long before 1994.’”
South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world. A list of the country’s twenty richest people, published in Johannesburg’s Sunday Times newspaper last weekend, showed an eight percent increase in their wealth compared to the previous year. Mining heir Nicky Oppenheimer, who is reported to have a 2.3 percent stake in Anglo American, was in fourth place on the list.
Malema has called for nationwide strikes to make the mines of South Africa “ungovernable,” unless employers give in to wage demands.
“It is a struggle the mineworkers are prepared to die for,” he said.
“We should be inspired by those comrades who were killed at Marikana to now begin to demand 12,500 [South African rand per month, or about $1,500] for each mine worker. That should serve as a source of inspiration to intensify the struggle for better salaries,” Malema continued.
Many see Malema as part of the problem – a member of the political elite who lives a life that is far removed from most South Africans. There is speculation that he may be arrested for inciting violence at the mines.
But the police will not end the frustration of those miners who refuse to return to work. More mines around South Africa may soon fall silent.
Malema summed up the strikers’ sentiment. “Make no mistake… We will not stop until we get what is due.”