CHILD soldier... TO POLITICIAN
South Africa may have been spared the scourge, but the story of Julius Malema, told in the first person, is like a documentary on child soldiers.
It might not be as chilling as the tales of the children swallowed into the fold of such formations as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda and others in Myanmar, Burundi, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lebanon, Liberia, Nepal and Sierra Leone - but it is still one of innocence lost.
Already receiving the basics of political education at age nine - including the chanting of slogans - he was a member of a military organisation, Masupatsela an OR Tambo: "Our main task was to remove posters of the National Party which were, at the time, placed strategically outside police stations."
At 13, when his peers in the "normal world were starting to gape in wonder at the firmness inside their Jockeys, "I was getting military training'', which included the handling of firearms.
He says this as if it were a run-of-the-mill rite of passage; as if playing in the sand wasn't what was meant to be the lot of all children.
"I never belonged to a choir," he says.
The only child of a single parent, Malema paints an army camp-type picture of his upbringing in Seshego, in Limpopo.
"I grew up in a community that was highly active politically. At that age we were told there was a regime we had to fight, a regime that had inflicted a lot of pain on our parents," he says.
A two-year-old Human Rights Watch report paints this gory picture: "In over 20 countries around the world children are direct participants in war. Denied a childhood and often subjected to horrific violence, an estimated 200000 to 300 000 children are serving as soldiers for both rebel groups and government forces in current armed conflicts.
"These young combatants participate in all aspects of contemporary warfare. They wield AK-47s and M-16s on the front lines of combat, serve as human mine detectors, participate in suicide missions, carry supplies, and act as spies, messengers or lookouts."
Malema and his generation are luckier - trained as marshals, the most daunting tasks they've had to do was crowd control at rallies.
A bit older now, he says, "I do politics." When asked what he does for fun: "I know no other life."
This is the same life that almost invariably saw him as the youngest in any group he was a part of.
"In 1993, when we came to bury Chris Hani, they nearly didn't allow me in because I was too young."
He was 12.
Asked about the story of another child activist born into the politics of the ANC - Stompie Seipei - Malema's response is some whispered mumbo-jumbo this writer does not recall.
It's understandable, he was only eight when Stompie died in 1989.
Records attest to the fact that Stompie, from the Free State town of Parys, was a tragic hero during the mid-1980s when he became the youngest political detainee - jailed at the age of 10!
A passage from the Human Rights Watch reports bears the hallmarks of a Stompie Seipei life: "Physically vulnerable and easily intimidated, children typically make obedient soldiers. Many are abducted or recruited by force, and often compelled to follow orders under threat of death. Others join armed groups out of desperation.
"As society breaks down during conflict, leaving children no access to school, driving them from their homes, or separating them from family members, many children perceive armed groups as their best chance for survival."
Stompie's mother, Joyce, continues to eke out the semblance of a normal life at a squatter settlement in Tumahole, the Parys township, while Malema's mother, Flora Mahlodi Malema, has died.
While Stompie met a brutal death at the hands of Jerry Richardson, coach of the ill-famed Mandela Football Club, Malema has just entered "le good life" of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), as president, to which he's just been elected.
As we meet for breakfast at the Park Hyatt in Rosebank he brings to the table the chubby, well-fed face of youth leaguers made famous by the pall-bearers at mining magnate Brett Kebble's funeral.
It's not a particularly good morning for the new ANCYL president since his off-the-record comments have made the morning papers.
He is quoted as defending the actions of the young people, some of whom undressed publicly, at the Mangaung congress that chose him as Fikile Mbalula's successor.
He will learn, says Zizi Kodwa, the league's outgoing spokesman, who chaperones Malema to the Rosebank breakfast.
Laying the groundwork, Kodwa hastens to add that the dispute surrounding the election of Malema has since been thrown out since the mother body found it had no basis. Malema was contesting the presidency with Saki Mofokeng, a local Free State lad.
Malema says he's still the youngest in the Top Five of the job that returns him to the 7th floor of Luthuli House, familiar territory from his days as Cosas president.
He's 27 while those around him average 31 years.
But at 20, turning 21, he was the oldest head of pupil body Cosas and often took flak as a troublemaker who didn't belong in class. It was the Cosas constitution that forced him to stay put, he says.
He's not been an angel.
In 2002 he led a Cosas march, as chaotic as the Mangaung gathering, through the streets of Johannesburg, where the louts harassed hawkers and generally disturbed the peace.
He laughs about how Winnie Madikizela-Mandela handed him over to the Hillbrow police after he'd scooted.
Among his idols he counts the late Peter Mokaba, the firebrand past president of the youth league, owner of the "Kill the Boer; Kill the Farmer" chant Malema, given his political education, sings so well.
He says he was the go-between linking "Ou Lady" Madikizela-Mandela to Mokaba, when the latter was deliberately not taking calls from the Mother of the Nation.
Mokaba still has a special place in the younger man's heart:
"We went to his grave to seek his blessings before going to Mangaung. We went back for a report-back when we returned."
"We" is the plural Malema uses when referring to himself - struggle-speak.
Is he up to the task of leading the ANCYL?
"We've always been ready to serve."
He grew up within strict ANC discipline, he says. This in reference to the chaos in the Free State capital. "We'd never undress," he chuckles.
But he says his icy relationship with Limpopo Premier Sello Moloto - a namesake as he shares Malema's given African name - is not a sign of disrespect: "In fact, it is Moloto who disrespects me."
The premier, at the height of debate, told him to voetsek, he says.
He insists that Caswell Mathale would make a better leader in Limpopo than Moloto.
His immediate task is to lobby the second leg of congress, which takes place in the second week of June, to call for the scrapping of the case against party president Jacob Zuma, he says. "It's a political case that needs a political solution."
The father of an 18-month-old boy, Ratanang, Malema was wary about showing up at the Samas in Sun City, where comrade Kodwa hoped to be.
He doesn't want to make it into the tabloids, he says guardedly.
The farthest he has travelled is Cuba, "where I shook Fidel Castro's hand".
Having commenced communications studies with Unisa, this to satisfy an ANCYL leadership criterion, Malema, who failed twice at high school, says his reading matter is political.
Maybe something on the children of the LRA might help him catch glimpses of what could easily have been his own life.