Julius Malema, expelled African National Congress (ANC) youth leader and current leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) political party, gestures at Polokwane High Court, where he appeared on charges of money laundering and racketeering, November 18, 2013. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

South African opposition firebrand Malema faces corruption charges

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South African opposition firebrand Julius Malema appeared in court charged with money laundering, racketeering and corruption on Tuesday, kicking off a hearing that could see President Jacob Zuma’s most vocal critic jailed.

Malema – who has himself regularly accused the government of corruption and urged Zuma to pay back millions of dollars of state funds spent on renovating his home – has dismissed the charges as politically motivated.

Prosecutors say the case relates to a government contract worth 52 million rand ($4 million) awarded by a provincial department to a company in which Malema held a stake through his family trust. The contract was for the construction of roads in Malema’s home region.

He is accused of “improperly” receiving the cash for the contract in a conspiracy involving state tenders.

Malema, expelled from the ruling African National Congress in 2012 for ill-discipline, joked with journalists and posed for pictures in a dark suit and red tie before the hearing in Polokwane, capital of his northern native Limpopo province.

Since his expulsion he has presented himself as a champion for impoverished blacks whose lives have changed little since apartheid ended in 1994.

He now heads the ultra-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the second largest opposition group, and has in recent weeks rallied supporters with calls for Zuma to “pay back the money”.

Opposition parties called the upgrades to Zuma’s rural home lavish and wasteful and Public Protector Thuli Madonsela last year recommended he refund some of the money.

But allies have defended the work, saying a swimming pool was needed for fire-fighting purposes and an animal enclosure was required to prevent cattle and chickens from setting off motion detectors.

Malema headed the ANC’s powerful youth wing and played a pivotal part in Zuma’s rise to power before he fell out with the president and party.