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ANC Youth League President Julius Malema leaves court in Johannesburg last month following his trial on hate-speech charges.Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

The chubby young man has been ridiculed as the clown prince of South African politics. He threatened to ban Twitter. He praised Zimbabwe's farm seizures. He called an opposition leader a "cockroach" and accused a British journalist of having "rubbish" in his pants.

Even his own political comrades were embarrassed by him. They ordered him to enroll in anger-management classes.

But now a bizarre courtroom battle over an anti-apartheid song has propelled Julius Malema toward the top of South Africa's political system. His supporters, including the former wife of Nelson Mandela, are touting him as a future president.

He has become a political phenomenon. He is wildly popular among South Africa's angry black youth, who are increasingly resentful of black unemployment and white wealth. And when the country's next president is chosen, it is Mr. Malema who is likely to be the kingmaker.

How it happened is a revealing story of South Africa's evolution since the Mandela era. The politics of reconciliation is being replaced by the politics of confrontation, and the old wounds of racial tension are being torn open again. Mr. Malema, the 30-year-old firebrand leader of the youth wing of the ruling African National Congress, ignited a storm of controversy when he began singing a song with the refrain, "Shoot the boer, kill the farmer." It was one of the most militant songs of the fight against apartheid, whipping up hatred against white Afrikaners.

Its words, referring to Afrikaners as "dogs" who "rob us," are seen as highly inflammatory in the post-apartheid era. But the youth leader and his supporters have sung it repeatedly at ANC Youth League rallies since early 2010, despite warnings that it could incite violence against white farmers.

An Afrikaner rights group took Mr. Malema to court, and one high court ruled that the song was unconstitutional. The case was referred to the Equality Court, which deals with allegations of discrimination and hate speech.

At the Equality Court, the case has backfired spectacularly. Lawyers for two Afrikaner lobby groups were aggressive and patronizing in their questioning of black witnesses, including Mr. Malema – allowing him to portray himself as a noble victim of racial persecution. The ruling ANC was obliged to rally around him, making him stronger than ever.

Before the court battle, Mr. Malema faced challenges from young rivals for his youth-league crown. But after the courtroom drama, he is all but certain to be re-elected as president of the youth league at its convention next month. And because of the league's role in providing delegates for ANC conferences, he will be positioned as a powerful kingmaker next year at a crucial ANC congress that will effectively decide whether Jacob Zuma remains as South Africa's President in 2014.

His critics have called him a demagogue and a dangerous populist who inflames the country's racial tensions. He accuses his enemies of being "white messiahs" or exhibiting "white tendencies" – insults that make the ANC uneasy, since the party of Mr. Mandela has pledged to be non-racial in its outlook.

At the court hearing last month, Mr. Malema strutted around with machine-gun-toting bodyguards while giving daily speeches to supporters who sang and danced for him. The court case seems to have emboldened him again. In recent days he has thundered that white farmers are "criminals" who have stolen black land. He has demanded state ownership of all farmland. He has launched verbal attacks on the United States, and suggested that Osama bin Laden may still be alive.

Julius Sello Malema was born in 1981 in the impoverished township of Masakeng in Limpopo province. He was brought up by his mother, Flora, a cleaning lady, and his grandmother, Sarah. He has described his family as the poorest in the township, and says he went to school without shoes.

At the age of 9 he ran away from home to catch a glimpse of Mr. Mandela, who had just been released from prison. He says the ANC taught him to fire a gun and chant slogans, and he took a gun into the white suburbs to seek revenge for the assassination of liberation hero Chris Hani. By the age of 14, he was leader of the ANC youth branch in his town.

He was later ridiculed when it emerged that he had failed Grades 8 and 9 and his high-school woodworking and math classes. He finally got his high-school diploma at the age of 21. But his poor school performance was largely due to his obsession with political activism. By 2007, he was playing a key role in the backroom struggles that eventually led to the toppling of former president Thabo Mbeki, who was replaced by Mr. Zuma.

A few months later, at a chaotic convention where drunk delegates disrupted speeches, he was elected president of the ANC Youth League. He announced that he was prepared to "take up arms and kill for Zuma."

He was also mysteriously wealthy. He owned two houses, drove expensive Mercedes-Benz cars, wore a $34,000 luxury watch and favoured $100 bottles of champagne and whisky. Reports have linked him to private companies that won dozens of lucrative government contracts.

He made no apologies for his wealth. "We are the elite that has been deliberately produced by the ANC as part of its policy to close the gap between whites and blacks in this country," he said.

The media soon portrayed Mr. Malema as an uneducated buffoon – especially when he called for Twitter to be banned because of the proliferation of spoof accounts by jokesters who pretended to be him. His reputation suffered another blow last year when the Equality Court convicted him of hate speech for declaring that the complainant in Mr. Zuma's 2006 rape trial had had "a nice time" because she "requested breakfast."

But as he campaigns for next week's municipal elections, analysts say Mr.Malema has helped create one of the most racially charged political climates since the death of apartheid.

"He knows how to feed on the disaffection at the grassroots of South African society," says Johannesburg Star political writer Deon de Lange.

"For the ANC, Malema has now become too big to fail," he wrote this week. "Malema is firmly in the driving seat of the ANC's campaign. … Now the joke's on us."