Meet the Donald Trump of South African politics

GlobalPost
Julius Malema
Leader of South Africa's left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters Julius Malema at a protest outside the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in Sandton, Oct. 27, 2015.
Siphiwe Sibeko

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — To some, Donald Trump is a case study in bold, brash American exceptionalism.

But as the world watches his campaign for the US Republican nomination, a realization hits closer to home: many countries have their very own Trump-like candidate, a polarizing, populist politician characterized as a demagogue by some and a savior by others.

Here in South Africa, that person would be Julius Malema. While a much younger man, and on the opposite side of the political spectrum, Malema, like Trump, is known for his provocative and at times reckless statements that garner outsized attention. 

South Africa is also nearing an election — a municipal election, to be fair, but a significant one — that will take the pulse of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in the face of mounting criticism and public opposition.

In the run-up to this poll, due to be held between May and August, fierce political rhetoric is on the rise. Particularly from the 35-year-old Malema, who was leader of the ANC's Youth League before being ejected from the party. He is now the "commander-in-chief" of the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters.

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Malema, like Trump, has a contentious relationship with the media. 

At an EFF press conference last month, Malema declared he was banning journalists from media outlets owned by the Gupta family, wealthy friends of Malema’s political rival President Jacob Zuma. Malema said he could not guarantee the safety of these journalists at EFF events. At Trump's press conferences, journalists have been castigated, booed and even "choke-slammed."

Malema also declared that the Guptas — who relocated from India to South Africa starting in 1993, and are South African citizens — “should leave the country," adding that “South Africa is not for sale over a plate of curry.”

"[Malema] reminds me a lot of Donald Trump in the United States, who wants to ban Muslims and throw reporters out of press conferences,” Moegsien Williams, editor of the Gupta-owned New Age newspaper, said in response.

"He is our very own Donald Trump and I worry about that kind of language when we have an election coming up," Williams said.

Malema has previous experience with banning media: In 2010 he had aBBC News journalist thrown out of a press conference, calling him a “bastard” and a “bloody agent.”

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Malema has long been known for his outsized image and opinions.

As leader of the EFF, Malema sports a revolutionary-style red beret along with red worker's coveralls (and Louis Vuitton shoes, to "inspire the poor"). 

A key pledge of his party — which describes itself as a “radical and militant economic emancipation movement” — has been to nationalize mines and expropriate land without compensation.

But while he was ANC youth leader, Malema lived a high-profile, high-flying life, flashing a Breitling watch and luxury cars, and celebrating his birthday by spraying Moet & Chandon champagne.

He has also faced problems with the tax man — Malema's fancy Johannesburg home, along with other assets, were auctioned off to pay a massive overdue tax bill. ​

And then there's his big mouth. In 2009 Malema accused then-opposition leader Helen Zille of appointing “boyfriends and concubines” to her cabinet “so that she can continue to sleep around with them.”

When he was an ANC member and an ally of the president, Malema declared he would “kill for Zuma.” He told college students that the woman who accused Zuma of rape would not have stayed for breakfast if she hadn’t enjoyed the sex. 

Malema's EFF, founded in 2013, received more than 6 percent of the vote in general elections held less than a year later. The party is expected to increase its support in upcoming local polls, drawing in young people disenchanted with established politics.