At 29 years old, Julius Malema, President of the Youth League of the African National Congress (ANC), has caused enough controversy for several lifetimes. On April 8, minutes after ejecting a BBC journalist from a press conference at ANC headquarters in downtown Johannesburg, Malema spoke with TIME's Africa bureau chief Alex Perry.
What's your vision for South Africa?
South Africa should be a place where people share in the country's wealth, where there is no huge class division or gap between poor and rich. We need a country where everybody enjoys a better life, where the state has the capacity to take care of its people, and where our people are employed and free from disunity and political instability.
So what's the reality of where South Africa is right now?
We are getting there. There has been an emergence of black people who are playing a role in the economy, although it is a very minor role. That's an inspiration to everybody. We need to start developing [more] areas, empowering people, giving them houses, building roads, schools, clinics, taking care of the elderly and the children of the poor. And I think we have been doing very well. We have not sold out.
I imagine you mean sold out to "imperialists," whom you see as opposing your cause? Can you explain what you mean by that?
We are fighting countries who want to monopolize our economy, countries who want to control our countries from their countries, who want to control our mineral resources, and exploit the people of our countries for the benefit of their countries.
At other times when I've heard you make that point, your words can make it seem as though you see everything in racial terms.
Everything is racialized here. When you see the economy moving, those who are becoming richer are white and those becoming poorer are black. It cannot be that you want me to turn a blind eye to that. Blacks group themselves together. Whites group themselves together. This is multi-racialism. I am fighting for non-racialism. The ANC, when it addresses national questions, speaks about gender, class and race. All these three issues are still unresolved in South Africa.
Nelson Mandela tried to overcome racial division through reconciliation and working together. Aren't you divisive? Aren't you a departure from Mandela?
Nelson Mandela always stood against a system where people were exploited by others because of their race. People are still oppressed because of their race.
But while apartheid certainly left a legacy, surely after 16 years in power the ANC shares some of the blame, not just for not addressing the gap between rich and poor but also for presiding over a decade and a half in which the gap has actually widened?
We are critical of ourselves. When we see the majority still living in poverty, [the people] who are to be blamed are ourselves. We need more practical interventions to change the living conditions of our people. The debate over nationalization [Malema has called for the nationalization of South Africa's mines] is just one step. We need to have power in our own hands and [we need to have] our own lands. And this falls to us. We are a political party. We will be out of business if we do not take care of the people.
Is that your role, as leader of the Youth League? To stimulate debate, to be a crucible of new ideas?
The ANC Youth League has always been a body of ideas. In the ANC, it is the first to break new ground on any topic. That's why we say things that other people are scared to say. That's our responsibility: to become the voice of the voiceless. Me, I am a youth. I act like a youth. [And] it's not just me. Those who came before did the same thing.
How can you describe Zimbabwe as a success? [Malema recently talked about the nation heading towards becoming 'peaceful and successful.']
These people have been patient. They did characterize it with violence and that's a problem. But when they take that land, it benefits hundreds of thousands of people.
Where does your revolutionary fire come from? What brought you into politics?
I came into contact with the ANC when I was 9 years old. They used to teach the children about the ANC, and how to sing their songs. There was also some paramilitary training: how to handle a shotgun, how to clean a gun. That's how we were baptized. When I was 11 or 12, I was on my way across the country for full military training until we were told that somebody had leaked this information [to the apartheid authorities]. A guy called Freddie organized us into child soldiers. We supplied protesters with tires to burn and barricades for the roads. We were just kids. The enemy thought we were just playing in the street with tires. But we were actually supplying the tires.
In some ways you can understand why some whites are bitter about the end of apartheid. They're bitter losers. But you won. And yet you seem to be a bitter winner.
We have not won the war. The war is just beginning. We want the economy in the hands of ordinary South Africans. Political freedom alone is not sufficient. It's only sustainable if it is attained with economic and social freedom, when [we achieve a country] where we do not look down at each other because of color. Madiba [Mandela] played his role of ushering in democracy. Then he handed the baton over to us.