JOHANNESBURG — At just 26 years of age, he helped oust one South African president and elevate another. Some four years later, he's threatening to do it again.
But Julius Malema, the fiery and powerful leader of the African National Congress party's youth league, may have gone too far when he said he also would work to overthrow the president of neighboring Botswana.
Malema is now appearing before an ongoing party disciplinary committee on charges of violating the party constitution, bringing the ANC into disrepute and sowing division in its ranks.
The young man some find charming and others boorish once told a local newspaper that his youth should allow him more latitude. In his words: "I must put more fire on what I say so that people can feel the heat."
It was the same motivation cited by another young firebrand of the ANC more than 60 years ago. Nelson Mandela said he helped found the youth league in 1944 "as a way of lighting a fire" under a conservative leadership he considered "a tired, unmilitant, privileged African elite."
The 1994 election that made Mandela South Africa's first black president marked the end of apartheid. Even though he had been imprisoned for 27 years, Mandela advocated reconciliation when he was finally freed, and probably kept the country from descending into a race war.
Malema does not preach reconciliation. Instead, he has praised Zimbabwe's government-sanctioned seizures of white-owned farms. He says he wants to transform the lives of millions of South Africans who remain impoverished and unemployed by forcing the ANC into an "economic war" to wrest land and mines from whites.
The party's top six leaders are divided about how to deal with their "enfant terrible." Last year the ANC fined Malema $1,470, saying his comments on Zimbabwe, his disrespect of President Jacob Zuma and treatment of a journalist he threw out of a news conference had brought the party and government into disrepute.
Malema was told to take anger management classes. And he was told that if he transgressed again, he could be suspended, even expelled from the party.
Then his youth league announced it was sending a committee to work with opposition parties in Botswana to overthrow a president it accused of cooperating with "imperialists" and undermining "the African agenda" in Libya's revolution.
Malema's ongoing disciplinary hearings could be the opportunity that some in the ANC have been seeking to get rid of the young man now threatening to oust Zuma.
Malema helped bring Zuma to power by voting to make him ANC president in place of former South African President Thabo Mbeki, thus ousting Mbeki from the presidency.
The ANC president automatically is the party's candidate to lead the country and is all but guaranteed the top job since opposition parties offer little competition.
Malema was born to the maid of a white family and grew into a precocious militant in a poor, high-density suburb of Seshego in northern Limpopo province. According to the local Mail and Guardian newspaper, he was "raised in the ANC's nursery," joining a pioneer youth group at 10 years old, when he began a lone protest against late delivery of stationery to schools, corporal punishment and ineffective school principals. He was joined by hundreds of students.
Malema himself says he was "born in the ANC." He rose through the ranks as a student leader in the dying days of apartheid, becoming president of the ANC Youth League in 2008.
Since then, he has been seen as a "barking dog" – the young hothead who can say publicly what others only whisper about. Party leaders initially welcomed Malema's rabble-rousing approach, which won the ANC support among disenchanted youth before 2009 elections when the party confronted massive apathy.
The party made only half-hearted attempts to rein him in with no more than a slap on the wrist – like an indulgent parent with a problem child.
But party leaders may have underestimated the deep well of rage seething among poor people, some of whom are financially worse off than they were under apartheid, and misjudged Malema's ability to harness that anger.
Malema has accused ANC leaders of abandoning principles enshrined in the party constitution, especially one saying the land and its resources belong to the people.
"We have to take the land without payment because the whites took our land without paying," he told one rally. "We all agree they stole the land. They are criminals, they should be treated like that."
The minister for land reform acknowledged last month that in 17 years, the government has bought only 7 percent of white land for redistribution among blacks, far short of its target of 30 percent of agricultural land by 2014.
Whites make up less than 10 percent of South Africa's population of 50 million. Some 40,000 white commercial farmers own about 90 percent of the country's agricultural land.
Malema also has caused outrage with his insistence on singing a song from the anti-apartheid struggle that translates as "shoot the white farmer," persisting even after the ANC ordered him to stop.
On Monday, a court ruled against Malema, saying the song was "hate speech." Malema retorted that South Africa's court system was racist.
And last year the Equality Court convicted Malema of hate speech for comments he made about a woman who once accused President Zuma of raping her. Malema had said the woman "had a nice time." Zuma was acquitted of the charges and went on to become president. At that time, Malema vowed: "We are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma."
Some, including Zuma, have suggested Malema has the makings of a future president. But when his name was put up last year on a party list for national legislators, Malema turned it down, saying he might consider it in another 10 years.
Those who would dismiss him as a bullying buffoon do so at their peril.
"This is a 30-year-old who has been redefining South African politics and is part of a 100-year-old movement," said Fiona Forde, author of "An Inconvenient Youth: Julius Malema and the 'New' ANC."
He already has become the most talked-about South African and the subject of debate on social networking sites. The Facebook page "1,000,000 Against Julius Malema" at last count had 144,079 people "like" it.
Nearly a quarter million people have viewed a video on YouTube of Malema swearing at a BBC journalist whom he called a "bloody agent" with a "white tendency" at a news conference. Malema had objected to the reporter's comment that the youth leader lives in Sandton, a posh Johannesburg suburb. Local newspapers report that Malema paid $5.3 million in cash for the mansion, which he then tore down to rebuild from scratch.
Last month, police announced they were investigating Malema's business dealings. Malema has not responded to the news reports alleging he receives funds funneled through a family trust from businessmen he helps secure government contracts.
In a recent interview, Zuma told The Star newspaper that he does not think Malema should be expelled from the ANC.
"The job of the ANC is to help Malema, to mold him into a dynamic, good leader," the president said.
Only if that failed, Zuma said, should one ask: "What do we do with him?"