JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - In less than four years, firebrand ANC youth leader Julius Malema has become one of the most influential and controversial faces of South Africa's ruling party as he pushes the demands of the forgotten poor to the top of the political agenda.
On Thursday he was leading hundreds of his African National Congress Youth League supporters on a march to the Chamber of Mines and Johannesburg Stock Exchange to press demands to nationalise mines.
Malema, 30, has rattled investors with his calls to nationalise the country's giant gold and platinum mines, unnerved whites by advocating land seizures and had to face a disciplinary panel twice in less than 18 months.
But his populist and militant speeches have lured tens of thousands of poor, unemployed black youths, many facing a bleak future, into his camp.
"He is speaking a truth the government is afraid of engaging on," said Mark Schroeder, sub-Saharan Africa analyst at U.S. think-tank Stratfor. "He is not an easy one to ignore,"
Malema has been described as a reckless populist and a future leader of Africa's biggest economy. To many in South Africa, he is simply known by his nickname "Juju."
Born into poverty to the son of a domestic worker who worked for an Indian family in Limpopo, north of Johannesburg, Malema became politically active from an early age and rose through the ranks to become ANC Youth League president in 2008.
His supporters are the legions of young black South Africans still living in poverty nearly two decades after the end of apartheid and the formation of South Africa's "Rainbow Nation."
"Our main problem as a country is that we live under conditions that have made a Julius Malema a necessity," Nyakallo Lephoto said on the popular micro-blogging site Twitter where Thursday's youth league march was being discussed.
Unemployment is officially around 25 percent. Millions still live in squalid shack settlements clustered around big cities. Youth unemployment is about 50 percent, and a study by the South African Institute of Race Relations said about half of people now aged 25-34 would never find work.
Despite his relative youth, Malema has become a wily and shrewd political operator, using poverty and the plight of the youth to build a powerbase that is often at odds with the official party line.
"With carefree abandon he knowingly gave the finger to the project of non-racialism, rubbished the notion of a rainbow nation and challenged the goals of the transition," journalist Fiona Forde wrote in a recent book on Malema.
"He was a political entrepreneur operating in an environment of ample opportunity."
His flamboyant lifestyle, including sushi parties and free-flowing champagne, has further drawn poor youths to him but in July the newspaper City Press, in an article vetted by a judge before publication, said Malema had a slush fund for bribes used to finance his lavish lifestyle.
But it was his outspoken comments and criticism of senior ANC leaders, including President Jacob Zuma, that landed him in hot water.
Malema has been defending his actions in front of a party disciplinary panel since late August.
The hearing is a gamble for both Zuma -- who hopes to win a second term as ANC leader in December 2012 -- and Malema, who has come out in support of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe for the country's top job.
Support from the Youth League can boost candidates in the ANC and Malema is seen as a kingmaker ahead of the party conference next year where new leaders will be elected.
If found guilty of bringing the ANC into disrepute, he faces suspension or expulsion from the party, a punishment which would put his political career on ice.
Independent political analyst Nic Borain said Malema was part of a wider plan by contenders for the ANC presidency.
"This is not an accident of timing. This is about planning, planning by individuals and groups with large appetites for risk -- especially when the prize is so rich and the price of failure so high."
If he is found not guilty by the ANC, Malema could be back with a vengeance, Forde said in her book.
"Should that happen, South Africa can expect an even more emboldened Malema than they have seen before, a man who will pull out all the stops to hijack the mother body (of the ANC) at the end of 2012."
Editing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Jon Boyle