Political Contest Plays Out In South African Court

A disgraced political upstart, expelled from the governing party for insubordination, has redirected South Africa's spotlight on himself as a champion of striking mineworkers. Once an ardent supporter of the president, he now denounces him as a hopeless leader. In turn, the rebel politician is facing alleged money laundering charges.

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In South Africa, high stakes political drama is playing out in the courts and in the headlines there. A disgraced political firebrand expelled from the governing African National Congress for insubordination has worked himself back into the spotlight as a champion of striking mine workers. Julius Malema is denouncing the president, a man he once supported, as a fat cat growing rich on the backs of the masses. In turn, the rebel politician is facing money-laundering charges. From Johannesburg, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has this profile.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: You can't ignore Julius Malema in South Africa. He's young at 31, he's vocal, and he's partial to populist rhetoric. As one local newspaper says, Malema is an expert at capturing public outrage, adopting it and exploiting.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Speaking in foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: Others argue that as an unelected politician, Malema fills a leadership vacuum and that's how he has remained relevant, despite being expelled in April from the governing African National Congress, where he was president of the party's youth league. Julius Malema is divisive, opinionated and well-connected.

JULIUS MALEMA: They have been stealing this gold from you and now it's your turn. You want a piece of gold.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

QUIST-ARCTON: Speaking to thousands of striking gold miners in Carletonville recently, Julius Malema exhorted them to make South Africa's key mining industry ungovernable. In another address, Malema urged disgruntled soldiers of the national defense force to defend their rights.

MALEMA: Our political consciousness will not allow us to sit back. We only have our voices to fight this barbaric regime under President Zuma, to fight this...

QUIST-ARCTON: He's talking about the government of President Jacob Zuma, the same man he helped to come to power and said he was prepared to die for. Then the two fell out. In a recent speech, at the height of the deadly platinum miners' strike, the president made this comment about his political opponents.

PRESIDENT JACOB ZUMA: They are unashamedly using a tragedy to score political points instead of putting the interests of the workers and the country first.

QUIST-ARCTON: South African police shot dead 34 platinum miners in August in a violent confrontation over mine workers' demands for better pay and conditions. Their grievances and the spread of labor unrest have given Malema a second wind, says commentator Audrey Brown.

AUDREY BROWN: Julius Malema is interesting because he has managed to outsmart and outwit and outplay the president and other important people within South Africa. What he's done now is launched what I call an insurgency against the ANC.

QUIST-ARCTON: Brown says Malema has tapped into a national need.

BROWN: The fact is that he speaks uncomfortable truths to power. There will always be a Julius Malema in South Africa, I believe, as long as South Africa is as unequal as it is and as long as people are as dissatisfied with how our problems are being addressed.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Speaking in foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: Malema's anti-Zuma message is gaining currency 18 years after the end of apartheid.

MALEMA: Our country is leaderless. It's on an autopilot. Passengers have taken over. The captain has given up. He doesn't know where we're going.

QUIST-ARCTON: For months, South Africa's elite police unit has been investigating Julius Malema's financial affairs. He's facing a charge of money laundering in his business dealings and allegations that he profited from government contracts in Limpopo, his home province. Commentator Audrey Brown says the big test comes now.

BROWN: So is it coincidental? People wonder why these charges, why now? Is it to shut him up or do they genuinely have a case against Julius Malema and does he have a case to answer?

QUIST-ARCTON: Malema's lawyers insist the money laundering charge is politically targeted to silence their client. Granted bail, Julius Malema is scheduled to return to court on November 30, his opportunity, he says, to take the stand and defend his version of events to South Africans. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Johannesburg.

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