Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's longest-serving post-apartheid president stepped down last Sunday. Or, rather his party, the African National Congress, shoved him aside with unceremonious glee—even though ANC leader Jacob Zuma, the 66-year old front runner for the presidency, and Mbeki's most notorious political enemy, called for moderation, and for letting his beleaguered opponent finish out the last six months of his final term. "There is no point in beating a dead snake," Zuma said.
Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the ANC's Youth League, wasn't having it. "We will have Mbeki removed," he pronounced, "We don't fight to lose. Mbeki won't be president when we go to the election." And so it was—though much sooner than anyone had expected. Within days, Mbeki, along with 10 of his most important ministers, and Zuma's appeal for clemency had all been cast aside. Now, Malema's apparent victory has also now become Zuma's biggest test. It was less than two weeks ago that Zuma successfully dodged a lengthy and potentially ruinous corruption trial, clearing the way for his own political ascendancy. Now he faces a more intimate and complex challenge: how to quiet the crew of radical supporters from his own base clamoring for attention. If Zuma, who will likely be elected president sometime next April, hopes to succeed, he must demonstrate that he is not hostage to this radical fringe. Especially now, when fully one third of Mbeki's cabinet, including Trevor Manuel, the dexterous finance minister credited with spearheading much of the Mbeki administration's economic successes, are gone. "What [Jacob] Zuma needs to do is prove to this country that if he becomes president he won't be taking his cues from the likes of Malema," says Barney Mthombothi, a political commentator and editor of the respected journal Financial Mail. "Malema may be a loudmouth, but he is a problematic one."
Quieting the fringe is going to be a tricky job for Zuma: his noisiest supporters are also his most loyal. Malema, in particular, has a history of rabble-rousing. In 2005, as leader of the Congress of South African Students, Malema led a protest in Johannesburg that quickly turned into a riot as some of the people he led smashed car windows and storefronts. In 2003, when authorities were considering sending Malema's friend and political ally Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to jail on corruption-related issues, Malema threatened to burn down the prison to release her. And last June, as the newly elected leader of the ANC's Youth League, Malema, staged an all-out offensive on behalf of Zuma. "Let us make it clear now: we are prepared to die for Zuma," he said, "Not only that, we are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma." (Zuma, who was at the rally where Malema made his statement, later described the statement as "unfortunate" but downplayed the remarks by saying young people like Malema "will grow up and [I] hope at one point they will be able to use the right words for the right thing.)
Comments like that have struck fear into those who have hoped Zuma would provide a more enlightened, less divisive leadership than Mbeki. South Africa's Human Rights Commission investigated Malema for his comments after a barrage of complaints from opposition political parties and professional groups. Malema eventually agreed to refrain from using the word "kill" in public. But his provocative attacks continued. During the summer he accused the Democratic Alliance, South Africa's largest opposition party, of fomenting "counterrevolution" and went on to allege that legal investigators attached to the national prosecuting authority were on the payroll of M.I.6, the British spy agency. For many South Africans, Malema and his ilk represent a dangerous trend. "There is a sense that a kind of intolerance has set in," says Mathata Tsedu, an independent political analyst and editor of the City Press newspaper, "That people aren't able to hold an opinion without being labeled and called names they should never be called."
To be sure, this isn't the first time that the ANC's Youth League has been cause for concern. When the apartheid government fell in 1994, the Youth League's leader Peter Mokaba—Malema's ideological mentor, as it happens—inflamed hatreds and fears by loudly and repeatedly chanting an anti-white slogan, "Kill the Farmer, Kill the Boer." And Malema isn't the only hard-line supporter Zuma has to contend with. Leaders from the South African Communist Party and the trade unions have made a point of publicly contradicting Zuma when his message doesn't jibe with their agenda. Most recently, Zuma was forced to make a public apology for some pro-business statements he had made after a coalition of trade unions disapproved. Most worrying to South African observers, however, are the lengths to which Malema and his cohorts seem to have been willing to push the envelope. "There's a level of militancy among the youth that one has to expect," says the City Press's Tsedu, "But there's also a limit you don't go beyond, and there was a language there recently that was very insulting to the rest of the ANC."
There are encouraging signs of a crackdown against the radicals' excesses. South Africa's new interim president, Kgalema Motlanthe (Zuma can't take office until an election is held), is an even-tempered traditionalist who reputedly has no time for Malema's chicanery. At a recent press conference in Johannesburg, senior ANC leaders made sure Malema kept quiet, even though he was seated at the speakers' table. And it's also true that the ANC has a tradition of bringing radicals into line when necessity dictates. Even the feisty Peter Mokaba became a well-heeled deputy minister in Nelson Mandela's government. And at the end of the day, Zuma has much more serious matters to attend to. "There are formidable people around Zuma who are very sober and measured, and they're not going to be elbowed out of the way by the likes of Julius Malema," says Stephen Geld, director of South Africa's Edge Institute, which monitors political and economic developments, "Malema is going to quietly be put to the side now that there's the more serious business of running the country." If Zuma can bring his most radical supporters into line, maybe the rest of the country will follow.