JOHANNESBURG // Before he even takes to the podium to call for the nationalisation of South Africa's mines, Julius Malema's supporters are ecstatic, dancing in the aisles and singing his praises. "Malema, he is a man of peace and unity!" they chant in Pedi, the language of his birthplace in the northern province of Limpopo.
It would be a heady spectacle for any 28-year-old. But Mr Malema, the president of the African National Congress Youth League, is used to the attention. As one of the most controversial figures in South Africa, his detractors say he represents anything but peace and unity, while his supporters adore his firebrand rhetoric. "Who owns the bank? It's the white man," he told the audience at the debate in Johannesburg, proclaiming that while Nelson Mandela - himself a former Youth League president - and his colleagues had secured political liberty, obtaining economic freedom has become the task of this generation.
Whether Mr Malema is supervising the sacking of an ANC mayor in a township hit by violent protests or opining on the need for the South African football team to have a home-grown coach, he is one of the most visible politicians in the country. This week, he was praised by the president, Jacob Zuma, as "a leader in the making". It is Mr Malema's tendency to say exactly what he thinks that polarises opinion about him.
Last year, during Mr Zuma's corruption court case - the charges were eventually dropped - he declared: "We are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma." He said the woman who accused Mr Zuma of rape - he was acquitted - enjoyed the experience and he called Helen Zille, the Democratic Alliance leader, "very ugly. She looks like a real apartheid agent". At times he has raised the ire of his own party. After he complained that the security ministries in Mr Zuma's cabinet had been allocated to blacks while economic portfolios were the province of whites and Indians, he was accused of "narrow African chauvinism" and Gwede Mantashe, the ANC secretary-general, condemned his viewpoint as "against what the ANC stands for".
When he condemned Naledi Pandor, the then education minister, for having a "fake American accent" - in fact she has an English accent, the legacy of her many years as an ANC exile - the ANC released a statement calling his comments "unacceptable", and he was forced to issue a public apology. Mr Malema was born to a mother who was a domestic worker and a father he never knew. The ANC, which he first became involved with at the age of nine, is his family. It was also Mr Malema's school - he takes pride in his limited formal education, which saw him receive the South African secondary school graduation certificate at 21. "I'm not an academic, I'm an activist," he said.
One to one, he is surprisingly amenable. He admits his comments regularly see him having to account to the ANC, including to Mr Zuma himself. But Mr Malema is unrepentant. "They understand we must cause trouble. By virtue of being young we will commit mistakes here and there, and the elders will have some responsibility to correct me." But there is no doubt that, with the Youth League renowned for its ability to organise on the ground and galvanised under his leadership, he flexes considerable political muscle. The organisation's support was essential to both Thabo Mbeki's and Mr Zuma's ascension to the leadership of the ANC, and Mr Malema said: "The ANC Youth League does not control the ANC but we are kingmakers.
"I was blown away, he was brilliant," said Tim Cohen, a columnist for the Business Day newspaper who spoke against the nationalisation of mines at the debate. "He had that immediate oneness with the punters that was extraordinary." But Mr Malema, he added, was dangerous. "He's close to the second most popular person in the ANC now. And he embodies every element of the dangers of a populist leader."
Despite his youth, Mr Malema has already been the subject of a book by two leading political journalists, Max du Preez and Mandy Rossouw. "It would generally be true to say that Malema is despised and ridiculed by most white South Africans ... even by sections of the urban black elite," they said. "Yet it is also true that among the black youth Malema has become a much-admired hero and his arrogant, crude defiance a representation of their fears, resentments and aspirations."