The Julius Malema Mystery

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Photograph for TIME by Marc Shoul

For nearly three weeks now, a strange sensation, something like limbo or maybe the silence after battle, has descended on South Africa. Julius Malema has shut up. The man who has filled newspaper front pages for over a year with an almost daily stream of prejudice and rage is suddenly silent. Even a five-day late-April visit to Venezuela to study the petronationalism of Hugo Chávez produced neither a racial tirade nor a press conference. In his absence, South Africa is finding time for more everyday worries, like crime or AIDS or whether it will be ready to host all humanity at the soccer World Cup in a month's time. No one expects the peace to last.

The sudden hush from the head of the Youth League of the African National Congress (ANC) came after his most controversial performance to date. At the ANC headquarters in Johannesburg on April 8, fresh from a visit to Zimbabwe, Malema hailed Robert Mugabe's "resilience, courage, forthrightness and dedication" and the "progressive vision" now leading to "a peaceful and successful Zimbabwe." Heckled by a BBC correspondent, he called the reporter a "bastard" and "bloody agent" in the grip of a "white tendency." He then vowed to keep singing the antiapartheid anthem "Kill the Boer" (Boer is the Afrikaans term for a white farmer) even after the April 3 murder of farmer and white-supremacist leader Eugene Terre'Blanche. It was all too much for South African President and ANC leader Jacob Zuma, who called Malema "totally out of order." On May 11, the ANC fined Malema $1,300, and ordered him to attend anger-management classes and apologize publicly to Zuma. In a written statement, Malema did so and vowed henceforth to "reflect respect and restraint."

The gaping hole that Malema's silence leaves only underlines how he has quickly become the central, and most controversial, figure in South African politics. In the run-up to a general election a year ago, that position was Zuma's. The then soon-to-be President was a polygamist, with three wives and 19 children; he had been charged with rape (he was acquitted in 2006) and corruption (the case was dropped in 2009); and he also had a song — "Bring Me My Machine Gun" — that scared the wits out of some white people.

Zuma won power despite the furor around him because he represented poor, black South Africans. The son of a housemaid who grew up under a grass roof in the dirt-poor east of the country, Zuma became an ANC guerrilla and, later, head of the ANC's intelligence wing. That background made him a champion to millions in the townships and South Africa's clapperboard villages. And he felt their pain. In his first few months as President, Zuma lamented to TIME how little 15 years of ANC rule had changed the country. Wealth was still largely white, inequality was among the worst in the world and poverty had risen: the South African Institute of Race Relations found 4.2 million South Africans living on $1 a day in 2005, up from 1.9 million in 1996. "After 15 years, people are saying, Where is the delivery?" said Zuma.

Nevertheless, as a President Zuma has surprised with his centrism. He surrounded himself with quiet, capable technocrats of all racial stripes, who proposed levelheaded solutions to commonly agreed problems such as crime, unemployment and an HIV/AIDS population of 5.7 million. That embrace of pragmatism over populism left a vacancy for a new champion of the poor — Zuma has even faced riots over his government's poor performance — and Malema filled the gap.

Malema's origins are similarly humble: born on the northern dust plains of Limpopo, he says that by 9 he was supplying antiapartheid protesters with tires to burn and water to protect against tear gas. But he outdoes Zuma in his capacity for controversy. He leered that the woman who accused Zuma of rape must have had "a nice time" because she stayed for breakfast and a taxi — earning him a $6,700 fine and a conviction for hate speech. He urged his supporters to arm themselves by joining the army. The long list of enemies Malema has dubbed "racist," "imperialist" or even "Satanist" ranges from opposition leaders and ANC rivals to High Court judges, the boss of South African Airways, Tony Blair and the administrators of international athletics.

It's all a long way from Nelson Mandela, who in 1990 emerged from his 27 years in prison preaching not revenge but forgiveness and inclusion. Interviewed after his most notorious outburst, Malema denied his race-centered rhetoric is a divisive departure. Race still determines wealth in South Africa, he said, and "Mandela always stood against a system where people were exploited because of race." But like Zuma, he admitted to the ANC's failures. Asked if his histrionics are intended as a distraction from this disappointment, if he's ever guilty of just putting on a show, Malema smiled. "I am a youth. I act like a youth." There is hope in the admission; sooner or later, all young men grow up.