Malema will not gain mass support by picking on racial minorities
A cousin, who is a library of urban legends, tells of a man who filled a stadium by advertising that he would squeeze himself into a litre Coke bottle.
Entrance was R5. At the moment of truth, he tucked in his beer belly, pouted his lips, then pressed the bottle's mouth to his forehead - all to loud cheers.
When that trick failed, he slotted a finger into the bottle and tried to accommodate a second one, but failed. He then put in a toe. He tried other body parts I won't mention. After several failures, he gave up and confessed that he had never promised success.
Trying to make sense of Julius Malema's attacks on minorities is like trying to squeeze yourself into that bottle. It's no surprise that Malema doesn't slow down these tirades because the man he idolised - the late ANC Youth League leader Peter Mokaba - was the face of this African nationalist onslaught on minorities post democracy.
There has always been a small but vocal section within liberation movements, including the ANC, that has been suspicious of minorities.
In the '40s and '50s, when the ANC started working closely with groupings that were opposed to racial oppression, such as the Congress of Democrats, the South African Indian Congress and the People's Congress, there were African leaders in the movement who believed this distorted the struggle.
This small minority believed the struggle was one by the African people only.
Suspicion of minorities intensified after the formation of the ANC Youth League. The league, under AP Mda and Anton Lembede, advocated African nationalism.
Even in exile, a group of African ANC leaders were convinced that senior struggle leaders, such as Oliver Tambo, were being "controlled" by minorities who also controlled resources.
This nationalist group suffered a major defeat in 1955 when progressive forces, including the ANC, adopted the Freedom Charter, which states that the country belongs to all who live in it.
This resulted in the formation of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania, led by another former ANC Youth League leader, Mangaliso Sobukwe. Those who remained in the ANC while continuing to pursue the Pan-Africanist ideology suffered a series of defeats.
First came the Morogoro consultative conference in Tanzania in 1969 when the ANC took a major step towards embracing non-racialism. The outcomes also marked a major setback for African nationalists. The ANC opened membership to all racial groups and formalised its alliance with the SACP, which was dominated by minorities.
The Africanists in the party began to push back. Agents provocateurs were expelled.
With the ANC in exile and unable to marshal the struggle inside SA, those remaining in the country formed the United Democratic Front. The UDF was more non-racial than the ANC, and minorities occupied high positions.
The African nationalists did not give up. They mounted another fight at the ANC conference in Kabwe, Zambia, in 1985. They opposed allowing minorities to be elected to the national executive committee, its highest decision-making body between conferences. There were also those who thought minority groups had no business being involved in the struggle against oppression.
ANC stalwart Vusi Mavimbela was at that conference and tells the story in his memoir, Time Is not the Measure.
"The decision was overwhelmingly in favour of change. Some of those who had argued against opening up, continued to lament the outcome, arguing that the principle that underscored the founding of the ANC 74 years earlier had been reversed, not by a full conference, but a consultative one.
"They said that the ANC should have waited until we were back home for such a decision to be made. The conference decision was a victory for the non-racial vanguard role of the ANC. The ANC could not continue to lag behind the MDM [Mass Democratic Movement] inside the country on the issue," wrote Mavimbela.
The Kabwe outcome proved that the anti-minority view did not enjoy the support of the majority.
Post liberation, the ANC has made sure the leadership reflected the demographics of the country.
But Mavimbela is correct. The tendency to be suspicious of minorities continued. The youth league under Mokaba labelled ANC leaders of Indian origin a "cabal" and complained that this group was controlling resources. Party leaders such as Pravin Gordhan suffered a barrage of attacks by Mokaba.
Malema, a product of Mokaba's teachings, adopted this thinking. He became a believer in the worst form of African nationalism. He has hijacked the political space once occupied by the PAC and the Azanian People's Organisation.
Even though Malema may, on occasions, invoke the names of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, his politics have been inspired by Pan-Africanist rhetoric.
His attacks on white people and South Africans of Indian origin show that his idea of African nationalism is extreme, and has an element of right-wing demagoguery.
There may very well be legitimate concerns about Indians mistreating their African employees in certain parts of KwaZulu-Natal and other areas. To Malema, this presents an opportunity to make inroads in that province and lure support under the guise of pushing back against mistreatment of Africans by Indians.
The EFF has struggled to convince the people of KwaZulu-Natal that it is a viable alternative to the ANC. But Malema realises that with Zuma out in the cold, the ANC in that province may be vulnerable. The strategy to isolate Indians, while emphasising that the struggle is about African people, gives Malema an entry point to a province he has failed to infiltrate.
He has chosen a battle that the ANC or the DA shy away from because both pride themselves on their non-racialism.
While this approach may win Malema a few more votes on May 8, the African nationalist thinking has proven to be unpopular in our politics. The PAC and Azapo suffered regression after 1994. The idea that isolates other racial groups from the struggle of the African people is popular among a minority of South Africans.
If Malema is serious about realising his childhood ambition to ascend to the highest office in the land, he will have to change tack.
• Shoba is Sunday Times political editor