For years, people have noticed a mismatch between the income and the outgo of many within the governing African National Congress.

Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, has 20 children, three wives and a fiancee. Recently, the matter of how he supports this large and widely dispersed family has been vigorously questioned.

Indeed, the finances of everyone in government are suddenly viewed with a scepticism that often drifts into contempt. Zwelinzima Vavi, a labour leader and longtime ally of Zuma's, is calling for “lifestyle audits” of all senior officials to surmise who is on the take and just how much they are taking.

For years, people have noticed a mismatch between the income and the outgo of many within the governing African National Congress. The ANC is the party of Nelson Mandela, the organisation that liberated the country from apartheid, the home of many heroes now struggling to get rich.

In his novel Black Diamond, Zakes Mda, one of the nation's leading writers, wryly observed, “In this brave new world, accumulation of personal wealth is dressed up in militarism, as if capitalism is the continuation of the guerrilla warfare that was fought during apartheid.”

The catalyst for the current demand for accounting is not Zuma but rather the second most quoted member of the ANC, the leader of its youth league, Julius Malema. A virtual unknown two years ago, Malema, 29, is a young man seemingly unwise beyond his years.

His ANC comrades could perhaps tolerate his abuse of political opponents, enjoying how he denounced them as Satanists or demeaned the women as too ugly to marry. He recently insulted the country's Afrikaner minority by leading students in the old struggle chant, ‘Kill the farmer, kill the Boer.” In a nation where the police say 861 white farmers have been killed since 2001, some deemed this sing-along insensitive to say the least.

But Malema has also turned his tongue on veteran ANC stalwarts, particularly leaders of the party's alliance partners, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, calling them reactionaries. He said the Communists presented themselves as champions of the working class while “they spend most of their time drinking red wine.”

Malema is popular in the townships, where most young people delight in the entertainment value of his scalding wit. But he is increasingly despised within his own party's hierarchy and now claims that several ANC leaders are out to “smear” him. This hardly seems implausible.

For a long time, people have wondered how a young man with an impoverished past has collected enough cash to own a fine home in the Johannesburg suburbs. Malema serves Johnnie Walker Red Label whisky and Moet & Chandon champagne at his parties. He wears Gucci suits and a Breitling watch. He walks through poor communities in designer jeans.

In a single weekend last month, three major newspapers published exposés about Malema, asserting that he has amassed a fortune through government contracts steered to businesses in which he owns an interest.

According to The City Press, one company, SGL Engineering Projects, which listed Malema as a director, won $20 million in contracts from municipalities in Malema's home province. The company's earnings have multiplied in just the past two years, even though its work has often been found shoddy, news reports said.

These simultaneous revelations may have been a case of coincidental sleuthing — or perhaps closely timed leaks from well-informed enemies.

Under pressure to respond, Malema, speaking through his attorney, said that in 2008 he resigned his directorships in all companies. He insisted that he was unaware that he currently held a position in SGL.

Zuma has routinely supported his pugnacious acolyte, and this time was no different. “I'm not sure Malema has no right to business, on what basis I don't know,” the president said.

But blood was in the water, and soon the call for lifestyle audits stretched into the presidency itself. Zuma said such invasive accounting was unnecessary, arguing that by law government officials already were obligated to disclose their business interests, gifts and assets.

The president was correct about that. In fact, by law he was supposed to report the details of his finances within 60 days of assuming office. He was inaugurated 10 months ago but had yet to comply with the ethics code.

On March 10, a week after the news media finally awakened to Zuma's non-compliance — and after even some political allies had joined political adversaries in their disapproval — the president submitted an accounting of his holdings, though the extent of that disclosure has yet to become public.

As to how he supports all those dependents, part of the answer emerged on Tuesday when Collins Chabane, a minister within the presidency, said the government provided more than $2 million a year for “spousal” support. The examples he gave were for expenses relating to the duties of Zuma's wives in their capacities as first ladies, such as secretaries, air travel, cell phones and computers. No details were given regarding government support for the president's children.

The payment of Zuma's bills has been an issue before. In 2005, a close friend and financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was found guilty of bribing Zuma in return for help in various business deals. The moneybags were open for items big and small: vacations, medical bills, even the allowance for Zuma's children. The trial judge said the two had a “mutually beneficial symbiosis.”

Zuma was later charged with 16 counts of fraud, corruption and racketeering. He avoided a trial when prosecutors dismissed the case because of misconduct within their ranks, just weeks before he was sworn in as president.

Shaik, sentenced to 15 years, spent only 28 months in jail before being freed on medical parole in March 2009. At the time, he was said to be near death, though he has since been observed driving around Durban in his BMW X6.

That is not the automobile Malema prefers. He sits behind the wheel of a black C63 Mercedes—Benz AMG. — ©2010 New York Times News Service

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