Julius Malema represents many things to many people. To some, mostly whites, he is the personification of a future South African Robert Mugabe and everything that comes with a Robert Mugabe persona while, to others, mostly young blacks still hoping that the ANC will one day deliver them the much awaited Eldorado, he represents hope. He speaks the language of the streets. The hope that he represents is that the apparent neglect of the older ANC generation will one day be a thing of the past when Malema’s generation of leaders – accompanied by the likes of Fikile Mbalula, Malusi Gigaba, Menzi Simelane and others – takes control and matters such as land reform and real transformation of the South African economy are taken more seriously. To these hopeful Malema supporters, there is growing urgency to make room for more than just a handful of black connected people in the land of tender and business opportunities. To those who see a future Robert Mugabe, Malema spells a guaranteed end to Nelson Mandela’s dream of a unified, non-racial, non-sexist, prosperous South Africa. But the truth lies somewhere in-between these two extreme readings of Julius Malema the politician.

No honest and careful analysis of Julius Malema’s entire utterances points conclusively to a man who hates all white people and who is bent at destroying Nelson Mandela’s ideal South Africa. Julius Malema is simply a young man and politician (he prefers to be called an “activist”), no doubt also shrewd, who is tired of waiting for the “historical other side” to fully extend its hand of friendship and share the spoils of the skewed history of this country.

Many disinterested observers of the “Malema phenomenon” also seem to agree that the man is not a fool. At 27 years of age, he still has time in his hands and on his side. He has political capital that he doesn’t have to be in a hurry to gamble away in its entirety before time runs out; in any case, no time is running out for Julius Malema, at least not yet. We have seen how, on several occasions over the last few years, he has come close to what some thought – even hoped – would be his political precipice, only to be revived again as the political landscape continued to unfold in front of him and other political lifebuoys got thrown in his direction, seemingly by chance. Some thought he’d never survive his very public attacks on then President Thabo Mbeki even while the latter was still powerful and in office; then there was the time when he seemed to publicly chastise President Zuma for his reported bedroom shenanigans and, apparently, his failure to respect the “one man one sexual partner” call that has become de rigueur in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini took offence and demanded that Malema explains his remarks. Following a highly publicized encounter – and a less publicized apology – the two hugged and kissed; Malema having promised to be more careful in his utterances on polygamy. More recently – and apparently referring to the Guptas – he launched another public attack on families who took advantage of their political connections to amass massive wealth at the expense of the poor of this country. Despite their often reported clumsiness in responding to criticism, Malema’s spokespeople have always managed to explain themselves and his utterances out of very sticky situations. Malema himself has also demonstrated amazing street wisdom in explaining himself out of such sticky situations; often claiming to have been quoted out of context, or simply misquoted by white owned media with mischievous intensions, bent on destroying his name.

But Malema is indeed not a fool. His recent interview on BBC Hard Talk and a subsequent address that he gave to members and guests of the Cape Town Professional Forum at Canal Walk showed that the man is good at playing his audience. He skillfully dishes out exactly what the audience in front of him has to hear. Like the political animal that he is, he spends the time before being called to the podium carefully observing his audience and, once he gets hold of the microphone, he’d give them not only what he thinks they want to hear, but also what he believes needs to be said because the older politicians – seemingly with more to lose – are often too scared, or too wise, to say.

Never having seen him in real life before, and going only by what is reported on him in the media, I feared that he would embarrass me in both instances. I was wrong. In fact, I was pleasantly impressed by the man. During the Hard Talk interview, he calmly, but firmly, answered each question without flinching or giving any impression that he was caught in or pushed into a corner. At the Professional Forum in Cape Town, he came in and, when called up to make his address, spoke for what seemed like an hour and half without reading from prepared notes. At no point did he seem to fumble, looking for things to say. Every sentence that he uttered seemed to strike the right cord with his audience. People stood up and clapped, sang songs in his praise and swore to put their anger against the ANC aside to support the movement and not, as implored Malema, individuals who fail the movement. He generally – not specifically – acknowledged the mistakes that have been made in the name of the ANC but carefully drew a distinction between the movement which, according to him, has never made a mistake, and individuals who often get called forward to help advance the cause only to be tempted by earthly things and end up going the wrong way and ending up disappointing the movement. The ANC, Malema insisted, should not be punished for the errors committed by individuals. The mixed audience was ecstatic.

He also spoke in terms of a “liberated South Africa” and another South Africa, here in the Western Cape, which could only be liberated if the electorate were to make the right choices when the elections come. Almost in jest, he reminded those who were going to vote here that whether or not this part of South Africa would also be liberated depended entirely on them. People living in “liberated” parts of South Africa could only standby, watch and give moral support.

The Julius Malema that I saw both in the BBC Hard Talk interview and at the Business Forum in Cape Town was not the one that I had expected to see and hear. He struck me as mature and someone who knew exactly what he was talking about and where he was going with his address. He also quoted several historic truths that more politically correct people would not dare say in the presence of the media; things that we, South Africans, must develop the maturity to deal with in a more open manner; lest they continue to fester like sores and destroy Mandela’s dream, our collective dream. Nelson Mandela, argued Malema, expertly played the role of much needed unifier soon after the 1994 political changes, having led the fight for the political emancipation of black people in South Africa. But he also knew – and acknowledged – that the bigger battle of economic emancipation would still need to be fought by those who would come after him, that this would be the mother of all battles, and that it would be a long one.

But the question remains: how should we, South Africans, deal honestly with our past without destroying prospects for a better shared future in doing so?