The pair of proceedings dominating the South African news right now were ostensibly designed to pass judgment on one particular man: Julius Malema, the fiery president of the ruling African National Congress's (ANC) youth league who claims to speak for a growing mass of angry, young, black poor. But the two cases proceeding against Malema -- one a charge of violating South Africa's constitutional ban against hate speech by repeatedly singing an old protest song that glorifies shooting white people, the other an internal party inquiry on violating the ANC's own constitution by "sowing divisions" within its ranks -- are actually putting something much bigger than Malema himself on the stand. South Africa's entire approach to post-apartheid transformation is on trial.
Malema represents a sharp break with South Africa's course over the last 15 years. At 30, he is old enough to remember apartheid -- he often talks of running out of his little house in the poor, hot province of Limpopo in 1993, just after the assassination of freedom fighter Chris Hani, gun in hand, to shoot some whites in retaliation, until he heard that Nelson Mandela was appealing for calm -- but only just old enough. Mostly, he is a product of South Africa after apartheid ended in 1994, and his rhetoric differs vastly in style and substance from that of older leaders who got their political education under apartheid.
Those leaders exude a sense of relief, of satisfaction, over the big battle won; Malema's theme is the work yet to be done. Where Mandela radiated placidity and emphasized peace, Malema has an activist fervor verging on violence. He brags he would kill for the party elders he admires; he arrived at his recent court appearances with a wake of private bodyguards draped in semiautomatic weapons. He brazenly calls the organization he leads, the ANC's youth wing, a "radical and militant" organization and one of his adversaries in the opposition party a "cockroach." Where black leaders fastidiously avoided anti-white rhetoric after 1994 as a nod to reconciliation, Malema rarely fails to attach the word "white" to the evils he inveighs against in his rallies and speeches: he vows to take back farmland stolen by whites, he wants to nationalize white-owned gold and platinum mines. And where South African leaders in the 1990s charted a course of slow, even timid economic transformation to keep foreign investors happy and preserve the country's industrial economy, Malema brashly calls for a radical overhaul of South Africa's economic structures. His mission in life, he told a group of young supporters on Saturday, Sept. 10, is to wage "economic war" against the still-pampered "white minority." South African elites long feared the post-colonial example of Zimbabwe next door. Malema praises Robert Mugabe and traveled to Harare last year to see how Comrade Bob got things done.
Given the new, angrier style of his politics, it's a little ironic that the thing that finally brought Malema to a reckoning was his devotion to an old protest song from the apartheid era. "Dubula Ibhunu" means, in the Zulu language, "Shoot the Boer" -- "Boer" being an old-fashioned nickname for Afrikaners, the descendents of South Africa's early Dutch colonials. "The cowards are scared/these dogs are raping/shoot the Boer," the lyrics go. It was just one of many ardently angry songs composed during the height of apartheid-era oppression. In the past few years, Malema has given it new life by selecting it as a sort of anthem to sing at his rallies.
His flamboyant refusal to stop singing it -- along with the trip to Zimbabwe, the labeling of a political opponent a cockroach (a word redolent of the Rwandan genocide), and a recent bid to destabilize the ruling regime in neighboring Botswana -- has made him dramatically more famous within South Africa, and apparently popular with a large though somewhat ill-defined segment of South African youth. (South Africa doesn't have the kind of constant public-opinion polling the United States does, so it's harder to know exactly who supports whom, but Malema won reelection unanimously this summer at his youth league's annual conference.) His behavior also led the country's ruling elite to wonder whether the young leader they once admired for his energy was going dangerously off the rails. And so this year a group of Afrikaner leaders took him to court for propagating hate speech, which is banned by the South African Constitution. Simultaneously, elders within the ANC informed him they were charging him with violating the party's constitution, dragging him to an internal disciplinary hearing and even considering expelling him from the party.
The outcome of the ANC's disciplinary hearing is expected within days. The "Shoot the Boer" court case was just decided: On Monday, Sept. 12, a Johannesburg judge, Colin Lamont, found Malema guilty of hate speech, rejecting his argument that chanting his favorite song merely paid tribute to a vital piece of anti-apartheid history and prohibiting him and all his followers in the youth league from singing it.