Malema's back alive and kicking

Driving to listen to Julius Malema speak felt like a trip to a dusty old Drive-In. Sure, we've all moved on and are watching 3D movies on flat-screen televisions, but who can resist the lure of that grainy, faded picture and the horrible-tasting hotdogs that kept us entertained and fed for so long?

The large auditorium at Illovo's Gibs Business School was packed well ahead of Malema's arrival. There were more than a dozen TV cameras fixed on the table where the expelled ANC Youth League President and his men would sit.

The floor was a snake pit of cables and every chair was taken, with local and foreign journalists armed to the teeth with questions.

When Malema strolled in, the room fell silent. It was a strange moment, as everyone took in the man who flew too close to the political sun and was now facing the cold wilderness.

Malema was dressed in a Madiba-style ANC centenary shirt and a black beret, which were clearly meant to portray a "business as usual" attitude. By his side were spokesman Floyd Shivambu and secretary-general Sindiso Magaqa, both suspended from the league. A little further away were members of the newly formed Friends of the Youth League.

The prepared speech Malema delivered was uninspiring and rehashed claims that the entire disciplinary process against him and the others was nothing more than a political plot to settle scores and to silence them.

It was another helping of that beautiful contradiction between defiance and loyalty to the ANC, which few can actually untangle. It was a call for the ruling party to be more radical in pushing for economic change, an insistence that only the youth league's leadership can remove him and an attempt to convince the country that the league's top structure is holding.

"We call on all members and structures to remain solid behind the leadership," he urged. "Because we are political activists and economic freedom fighters, we will continue to engage society and continue our struggle for economic freedom in our lifetime."

But that's not what the journalists came to hear and once the floor opened to questions, the hands shot up.

One of the first was whether he was ready to throw his weight behind any contender who would challenge President Jacob Zuma for the party's top post in December, particularly Tokyo Sexwale.

Malema danced around the question, heaping praise on the human settlements minister, but stopping short of endorsing him. He said that like any other ANC member, Sexwale qualifies for the position.

"The fact that there are people who support Tokyo, they should never be attacked," he said. "He's a former premier, he's a minister now, he's a seasoned cadre of the movement, a Robben Islander, a trained combatant… a man who commands clarity on issues, including economic issues."

Later, while denying receiving any money from Sexwale (as was reported in the City Press at the weekend), Malema joked that he would gladly take some now, if it were going around.

"Even now is not late, if he has something to give me, I am more than ready to receive. Especially money coming from a comrade not a coward. Especially money that doesn't have blood. I will receive nicely and utilise it accordingly."

The question came a day after the country's major Sunday papers all ran similar stories that Sexwale's campaign - the unofficial one of course - is finally getting off the ground. Later, in a radio interview, Malema went a little further and said it would be dangerous to rule out Sexwale from the presidential race.

At the same time, Malema remained adamant that he did not accept any money from Sexwale: "Comrade Tokyo cannot buy me. No one can buy me. I am not for sale."

He was then asked if he has any plans to start his own political party, which he denied categorically. He spoke about sleeping at the ANC's door for as long as necessary, waiting to be let back inside. He went on about how parents should take their naughty children by the ear and pull them closer, instead of pushing them away. At some points it felt like a valve had been opened and he was releasing pressure through his lengthy answers.

He also denied that he would ever take the party to court, while speculation continues to swirl around whether he will petition the ANC's national executive committee to overrule the expulsion or if he will take the battle to Mangaung.

Questions around his tax affairs, general finances and his trust fund were inevitable, and he batted against them with patience. He refused to discuss his tax problems, saying they were private, but added that he was not having any nightmares and was ready to "deal with" anything that came his way. He dismissed any criminal investigation as the "consequences" of his political battle, and said he has never been involved in any fraudulent tender or other criminality.

Amid all the denials, Malema was finally bowled a short ball which he was able to smack, a question he spent almost 10 minutes answering: Richard Mdluli.

Last week, the controversial police boss was moved out of crime intelligence, but avoided being suspended. He's been accused of corruption and murder and suspected of exploiting his political connections. Malema's view is that Mdluli should be removed from the police because he is a threat to national security.

"Our phones are being listened to. You can't make a clever conversation. You can't. When you greet on the phone you first greet the person you are calling, 'how are you SG?' then he says he's fine, then you must greet Mdluli, you know he is listening…"

He joked that Mdluli's next posting should be as an ambassador in Somalia, where he could not use or abuse all the secrets he has collected.

But Malema went further to ask several important questions: why is the leadership so scared of one man? And if we can't trust the police, who exactly should we trust?

By this stage, Malema was fired up and moved to make the statement that would define the entire briefing. Malema delivered this bombshell: "There are no cry-babies in political battles and we are not cry-babies. We have committed ourselves to wining this political battle and we will do whatever it takes to win. If it's tomorrow, if it's June, if it's December, if it's 2014, 2030, whatever it takes, we will win this political battle and never betray this generational mission."

Malema went on: "We have two options: to submit or to fight and we are not submitting. I can tell you today, you must put it on the archives so when it happens you can replay it, I'm going to lead the ANC."

He explained that his expulsion was a test and that he would need to pass it. Not quite satisfied with the analogy, he added that for a diamond to shine it goes through a long process of being shined.

Understandably, Malema was called to clarify whether he wanted to be a leader, or "the" leader, of the ANC. He offered his position on the Limpopo provincial executive committee as an example of the kind of leadership he was talking about, but didn't rule anything out.

Asked about his future, he said they were heading from the Youth League to the ANC at "200km per hour". He also claimed the fight was not personal and that when they met their leaders - Zuma, Gwede Mantashe - they "hugged and loved" each other.

Malema wrapped up by insisting that he still has many friends in high places and that when he told the nation he would "kill for Zuma" he was referring not to the man but to the general fight against unfair prosecution and political persecution.

Now he believes that if Zuma were to have his day in court over fraud and corruption charges, "so be it".

But the main question remains: should South Africans listen? And if so, how seriously should we treat Malema's promises/threats?

Political analyst Somadoda Fikeni says that Malema could be underestimating the obstacles in his path. "He may come back later - he is still young man - but the immediate coming back would be nothing short of a miracle," he says.

But Fikeni believes Malema will continue to use the media and other means - like the Friends of the Youth League - to stay in the public domain and remain an important player. Malema has vowed to keep going to rallies and speaking his mind in public, repeating his claim that the ANC cannot ban him.

But many have said that his expulsion was the knockout blow that saw Malema tumble out of the political ring, at the very least until after Mangaung. Yesterday, he told us he is here to fight, and gave up a short spell of farming to resume his duty as league president. The reality is probably very different to the picture he's now painted and the winds will change quickly over the next few months. It will be interesting to see if Malema can deliver on his promises.

If he gets his way, sometime in the future we'll all be digging through the archives for the "I will lead the ANC" sound bite. If not, at least he got to deliver a great "I have no regrets" line.

This column also appeared in The Daily Maverick.