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Voice of hate or hero? South Africa's downtrodden workers put faith in Malema

The South African politician blamed for inflaming the miners' strikes there told NBC News that the treatment of the poor is worse now than it was under apartheid. Julius Malema -- expelled from the ruling African National Congress for his radical views -- says he wants to spread the chaos that left 34 miners dead. NBC's Rohit Kachroo reports.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The sky over the Marikana mine turns a murky shade. The euphoric chanting of its striking workforce begins to dim. Hail stones, the size of golf balls, pelt the crowd.

Many of the men shield their faces and race for cover underneath the corrugated iron roofs of their modest shacks, some slipping on the muddy ground as they run.

Julius Malema, the expelled youth leader of the African National Congress, had been due to address the crowd of striking platinum mine workers about their demand for higher pay. But the rally is called off because of the dreadful conditions.

It feels like only Mother Nature could have prevented the striking miners from seeing their hero.

Malema was the youth leader of South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, until he was expelled for indiscipline. Some see him as a dangerous agitator and a threat to the country's delicate racial harmony. He was convicted of hate speech for singing a so-called "struggle song" called "Shoot the Boer," translated as "shoot the white farmer."


But he is also hailed as a mouthpiece for the boiling anger of many poor, black South Africans frustrated by the pace of progress since the birth of democracy in 1994.

Africa's Rainbow Nation troubled by racist time warp

Under apartheid, the white minority institutionalized political and economic discrimination against the black majority. This system of racial segregation was in place for nearly half a century, until Nelson Mandela's African National Congress won multiracial democratic elections 18 years ago. The party has ruled South Africa ever since.

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View images of civil rights leader Nelson Mandela, who went from anti-apartheid activist to prisoner to South Africa's first black president.

An hour's drive from the Marikana mine, at a provincial courthouse, the storm cloud has yet to strike. Here, a group of workers have just been released from prison. They parade through the streets to celebrate their liberty. They chant Malema's nickname, "JuJu," and sing derogatory songs about President Jacob Zuma as they march.

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They are among the 270 mine workers who escaped the bullets when police opened fire during a strike last month, only to then be charged with the murder of 34 of their colleagues who were killed. In one of many echoes of the past to emerge from the massacre, the men were accused under an apartheid-era law that the white minority regime once used to criminalize entire crowds of black protesters. The charges were later withdrawn.

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The freed men say they will return to the mine to demand higher wages and to protest against the way in which the wealth of South Africa's vast natural resources is carved up.

"We will shout and strike for better pay -- and for JuJu," freed miner Mishack Mzilikazi says.

'We will never retreat'
Malema has promised to make the mines of South Africa "ungovernable," unless workers are paid more.

"It is a struggle the mineworkers are prepared to die for," Malema told NBC News at his home in Johannesburg.

"We should be inspired by those comrades who were killed at Marikana to now begin to demand 12,500 (South African rand per month, or about $1,500) for each mine worker. That should serve as a source of inspiration to intensify the struggle for better salaries," he says.

Felix Dlangamandla / Gallo Images via Getty Images

Julius Malema, third from right, joins miners at a march following a memorial service held for colleagues who were killed and injured during clashes with police on August 23.

 "If they respond with death, we will never retreat. We will soldier on until our demands are met," Malema says.

Police officers have been accused of torturing some of the men. The allegations sound like they could have come from the dark days of white minority rule.

"They will never kill all the mineworkers. It is not practically possible unless they are prepared to face charges of genocide," Malema told NBC News.

"For every revolution there are casualties. ... We lost many great people during the apartheid struggle," he adds.

For Malema, the strike illustrates the plight of poor, black South Africans -- the enduring "economic apartheid." He believes that many black people are worse off now, under democracy, than they were under apartheid.

"One of the white chaps was trying to make a joke to me and said, 'Had we known that it was going to be this nice for us as white South Africans, we would have fought for this democracy long before 1994,'" he says.

"The conditions for our people are worsening. The gap between the rich and the poor has widened," Malema adds.

Stark inequality
Malema, 31, has little memory of the darkest days of apartheid. But he claims to represent the rage of a generation of young black people who never experienced white minority rule, yet endure its grim legacy.

Although most people accept that "The Rainbow Nation" is a work-in-progress, many have grown tired of the slow pace of change in one of the most unequal societies in the world.

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The World Bank released a report in July that warned that slow job growth and deep economic inequality posed a threat to South Africa's stability. The country's official unemployment rate stands at 25 percent, but is believed to be much higher among young black men.

Malema believes that the nationalization of the country’s mines might be one solution to the gap between rich and poor, white and black.

Factbox: South Africa since apartheid

But many disillusioned South Africans aim their fire at the rich, black political elite as much as they do at white executives.

Malema is certainly wealthy. But he sees no contradiction in the fact that we are sat inside his designer suburban home as we discuss the plight of the poor.

"You do not have to be poor to understand the poor," he says.

Memorial services scheduled for the 34 South African platinum miners gunned down by police. The country's embattled leader, President Jacob Zuma, visited the mine, promising a full judicial enquiry while reassuring international investors that South Africa was open for business. But the price of platinum on world markets surged -- as reports suggested strikes were spreading to other mines. Inigo Gilmore, Channel 4 Europe reports.

To many of his critics, Malema represents another ghastly aspect of public life in South Africa: corruption. An inquiry into allegations of fraud and tax evasion is close to completion.

"I've never done anything wrong," he says, defending himself against constant claims in the local media.

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"Let them (the prosecution authorities) bring those charges. ... Because it would give us an opportunity now to answer for ourselves, because I’ve been (tried) in the media, I've been convicted in the media, found guilty and sentenced for life for corruption. But I was never afforded an opportunity to answer for myself," Malema says.

Malema's supporters believe that political pressure is being placed upon the investigating authorities in an attempt to embarrass him.

 "This is a government that likes to attack. ... Marikana has shown that. But things must change," he says.

"Violence comes with government. Government is very violent under President Zuma. It is a violent government, it is a murderous government," Malema says.

"We will not be silenced. People must have change. We want equality. We must have our country back."

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