How Juju got his mojo back
Solly Maphumulo: Ernst Roets cut a defeated and dejected figure, keeping his eyes glued to his laptop while, on the other side of the courtroom, Julius Malema supporters celebrated what they believed to be a victory for the ANC Youth League president.
As youth league members laughed, shook hands and gave each other high-fives, Roets's girlfriend walked up to where he was sitting and gave him what must have been words of comfort and encouragement.
The hate-speech court case Roets had brought before the Equality Court in the High Court in Johannesburg, in a bid to stop Malema from singing a struggle song containing the words "shoot the boer", is far from over. But Roets must have realised as the court adjourned on Thursday that Afriforum, of which he is deputy chief executive officer , had scored spectacularly against his own team .
Judge Collin Lamont has yet to hear closing arguments from the legal teams representing Afriforum, TAU-SA and the ANC Youth League, but there is general public consensus that the case has been a major political victory for Malema.
Whatever the outcome of the legal proceedings, the drama that has played itself out in court 8A over the past two weeks has strengthened Malema's hand ahead of a crucial youth league national conference in June, at which he will seek re-election as president.
In the two days he spent on the stand to defend his singing of " dubul'ibhunu ", Malema cleverly used the platform to portray himself as a modern-day revolutionary leader who is being "victimised" for speaking out in favour of radical policies that would benefit the poor black majority.
Owing to Afriforum's and TAU-SA's lack of in-depth knowledge of struggle songs, the majority of which are sung in Nguni and Sotho languages, Malema was able to cast the two organisations as arrogant supremacist formations who wanted to dictate to the African majority what they could and could not sing in post-apartheid South Africa.
Lawyers for the two complainants seemed to have a major difficulty telling the difference between the "kill the boer, kill the farmer" chant made famous by Peter Mokaba in the early '90s and the "dubul'ibhunu" of the song.
Often portrayed as an unreasonable populist, Malema used the court this week to show South Africa his other side - that of a polished, calm and even reasonable politician who can defend his organisation's beliefs without throwing tantrums.
He succeeded in doing all of this largely because of the approach adopted by the complainant's lawyers, particularly TAU-SA's Advocate Roelof du Plessis - that is, to challenge Malema on issues that had little to do with hate speech.
Writing on his blog on Thursday, legal expert and well-known Malema critic Pierre de Vos described Du Plessis' approach as "tone-deaf and so obnoxious" that it actually created "sympathy" for Malema and for the singing of the song.
"Du Plessis sounds like (apartheid-era police minister) Adriaan Vlok or (state president) PW Botha giving a speech in 1986 about dangers of communism and the evils of ANC 'terrorism' and the swart gevaar. It is like the baas telling the bloody k*ffirs how lazy, stupid and evil they are ... it is Advocate Du Plessis' views that one ends up judging as being unreasonable, paranoid and bordering on racist," wrote De Vos.
During cross-examination on Thursday, Du Plessis at one stage questioned Malema about his reported ANC training in the use of a firearm when he was 13 and whether the youth league leader regarded himself as a child soldier.
"This is typical of Africa, children being used to fight wars," said Du Plessis.
Judge Lamont cautioned the advocate not to use "inflammatory language".
But Malema was enjoying the attack, at one stage looking into Du Plessis' eyes and saying: "You can call me any name. You will not demoralise me. You are dealing with a different animal here. A fearless fighter."
His supporters in court and those who were watching the proceedings on a big television screen outside the court building cheered loudly.
When Du Plessis suggested that Malema was being used by senior leaders in the ANC to air controversial views they were too afraid of expressing themselves, Malema replied: "I am very happy to be used by the ANC. I am the chosen one. I have always been a foot soldier of the ANC."
Again there was loud applause outside the court and cheering in the courtroom.
Malema had achieved his objective. Ever since he shot to national prominence, the controversial youth league leader has sought to cast himself as a revolutionary radical in the same mould as his mentors - the late youth league firebrand Mokaba and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who was by his side in court daily.
His age, however, always counted against him, as it meant that he had no track record of "taking on the oppressors". The court case, in the minds of many of his supporters, remedied that this week.
"He is (now) seen as a defender of the revolution ... He has become so powerful, it will be difficult for anybody to challenge him," said the youth league's Tshwane East branch secretary, Kwazi Marwa.
The challenge Marwa was talking about is that of Malema's position as youth league president. With the organisation's conference approaching, there has been talk of behind-the-scenes lobbying against Malema's re-election.
At first, it was reported that his deputy, Andile Lungisa, was preparing to take on Malema at the conference. More recently, it has been the name of Gauteng chairman Lebohang Maile that has been bandied about as Malema's challenger. Both Lungisa and Maile made appearances in court this week to show their support for Malema.
Marwa said they now stood no chance of unseating Malema.
"At this stage, Malema is untouchable. He is the president-in-waiting."
The hate-speech case also strengthened Malema's standing within the league's mother body, the ANC. Senior party leaders, some of whom have had strained relations with Malema over the past year, had to take a stand in his defence as the court case began to look like an attack on the ANC and its struggle heritage.
One such figure was party secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, who is said to be the target of a youth league campaign to unseat him at the ANC national conference in December next year. The youth league wants Mantashe replaced by its former president, Minister of Sport Fikile Mbalula.
It remains to be seen whether Mantashe's testimony will help heal the rift between him and the youth league, but Malema did imply - when addressing his supporters outside the court on Thursday - that the youth league had noted which leaders had stood by him during the court case.
Outside the formal ANC structures, Malema's court performance appears to have earned him new fans, especially among black youth and professionals.
The case, taking place just under a month before the local government elections and shown live on television, is a godsend for the ANC, which has not done much pre-election campaigning.
ANC leaders used Afriforum's attempt to have the song banned as evidence that "white" political parties - including Helen Zille's Democratic Alliance - wanted to reverse the gains of the liberation struggle.
The DA did not support Afriforum's case, but this did not stop Malema from using the podium outside the court to launch attacks on Zille.
As Roets and his organisation wait for the legal outcome of the case, Malema should be thanking them for resurrecting his popularity within the ruling party.
The ANC, whose election campaign has so far been disappointing, should also be grateful, because the racially polarising nature of the case is likely to mobilise its core constituency to turn up at the polls on May 18.