Despite his dismal performance in school and divisive nature, the firebrand leader of South Africa’s second-largest opposition party, Julius Malema, has become a symbol of success for his legion of supporters.
This is largely because he has built from scratch his own political party, the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which has become a political force that cannot be ignored 10 years after he founded it.
At the same time, Mr Malema has graduated from university with a BA in communication and African languages, and an honours degree in philosophy.
The 42-year-old is currently registered for a master’s degree at the highly respected Witwatersrand University.
Few thought he would achieve this – after all, he was the subject of ridicule when his final-year school results were leaked in 2008, showing that he barely scraped through with a below average pass.
An outspoken and controversial politician accused of promoting hate speech, he faced insults about his poor mathematics and woodwork results but said he did not let those define him because he “had no aspirations of being a carpenter but wanted to be an activist and politician”.
He previously admitted to failing two grades in high school because he “got too excited after joining Cosas” – the Congress of South African Students movement which had been formed to fight the racist system of apartheid.
White-minority rule ended in 1994, when the African National Congress (ANC) – which was at the forefront of the campaign against apartheid – won South Africa’s first democratic election.
Now Mr Malema is seen as something of a trendsetter, with an increasing number of politicians and celebrities finishing school while others are furthering their studies, though none have cited him as an inspiration .
“It is only through education that we’ll be able to reclaim black pride,” Mr Malema once said.
Earlier this year, Mr Malema told his supporters that they had to have a matric (school-leaving) certificate, if they wanted to be party leaders.
“We can’t be worse than the ANC… Go back to school if you want to lead the EFF or the country.”
Youth unemployment in South Africa is currently at a shocking 51% and young people, particularly unemployed graduates, are desperate for better opportunities.
“I have a teaching degree but I have been sitting at home, relying on a government grant because there are not enough vacancies for inexperienced job seekers,” said Nobesuthu Khoza, who graduated four years ago.
Many young people disagree with Mr Malema’s style of politics – which has led to fist-fights in parliament, and attempts to prevent President Cyril Ramaphosa from delivering keynote speeches – but they still respect him.
“I’ll be voting for the first time in 2024 and I think the EFF is a popular choice for most young people in this country but I don’t like the party’s disruptive behaviour in parliament,” said Siyabonga Mvelase, a university student based in Johannesburg.
This disruptive behaviour has also occurred in some South African cities, including the economic heartland of Johannesburg, where Mr Malema and his EFF have emerged as political kingmakers.
This comes after the ANC lost its outright majority in local elections in 2021, resulting in coalitions being formed to govern cities such as Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria.
The EFF has often held the balance of power, making and breaking coalition governments.
This has led to accusations that Mr Malema – like other politicians – is playing political games rather than focusing on the need to tackle the myriad problems facing residents, from bad roads to high crime.
Some analysts believe that this will cost Mr Malema votes in next year’s general election. The latest Ipsos opinion poll puts the party’s support at around 13%, a slight increase from the 11% it obtained in the last election in 2019 but still a distant third nationwide.
He has been repeatedly accused of hate speech. He’s been dragged to court by civil rights group AfriForum after the organisation filed a complaint to have the two songs Dubul’ibhunu (Shoot the Boer) and Biza a ma’fire brigade (Call the Fire Brigade) declared hate speech and unfair discrimination.
But the poll also records a slump in the ANC’s support, from 57.5% in the election to around 50%, raising the prospect of a coalition government at national level – and Mr Malema becoming a political kingmaker there too.
Derided by his critics as a populist and a political demagogue, Mr Malema was once the leader of the youth wing of the ANC, where he played a pivotal role in catapulting Jacob Zuma to the presidency but later the two fell out, leading to Mr Malema’s expulsion. As EFF leader, he was a major figure in the anti-Zuma campaign after an inquiry found the then president had breached his office by using government money to upgrade his private residence.
Many believed that his expulsion in 2012 meant that his political career was buried, but what later that year became known as the Marikana massacre – the police killing of 34 mineworkers striking for better pay – gave birth to the EFF.
Mr Malema was the first politician to visit the Lonmin-owned platinum mine, portraying himself as the champion of poor workers and launching the EFF in 2013, with a pledge to nationalise key sectors of the economy – including mines and banks.
On Wednesday, he returned to a settlement near the mine, where poor people live, as part of events to mark the EFF’s 10th anniversary.
The party slaughtered 15 cows and brewed traditional sorghum beer to “appease the ancestors”.
“We were born the moment the blood of the workers was soaked in this land,” said Mr Malema to the thousands of his supporters who had gathered to hear him speak.
“Today, we are here to dance and celebrate so that the enemy looking at us from a distance must feel the chest pains because they said the EFF would not last, but we are still here 10 years down the line,” he added.
Known in the EFF as the commander-in-chief, Mr Malema has promised to keep fighting for “economic freedom” – something that most black people have not attained almost three decades after the end of white-minority rule.
His critics say that his policies, especially nationalisation, are widely discredited, and will lead to economic disaster – not freedom.
Voters will give their verdict in next year’s general election, but for now Mr Malema is in buoyant mood, holding on Saturday a “festival of the poorest of the poor” as the climax of the EFF’s 10th anniversary celebrations.