Julius Malema, the 30-year old leader of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) has attracted growing headlines since 2010 for his calls to nationalize South Africa’s mines, and to emulate Zimbabwe’s land redistribution program in order to rectify a wide wealth imbalance between the white minority, which accounted for 9% of the 50 million person nation according to a 2010 census. Malema proclaimed “The only option is to take the land without compensation, if you refuse to give us an alternative.”

Last month, he was convicted of hate speech for singing an inflammatory anti-apartheid song which translates into “Shoot the Boer” (Dubhula iBhunu) at a ANCYL rally. Are these the harmless ravings of an innocuous radical activist, or an ominous harbinger for South Africa’s future? Current President Jacob Zuma has previously referred to Malema as a future president.

Next year, the ANC will hold leadership elections, in which the next president of South Africa will likely emerge. Though nominally a multi-party state, the ANC won 70% of the seats in the 2009 National Assembly elections while the Democratic Alliance, its most formidable opponent, gained 20 seats while attracting 12% of the vote.

This is a critical time for South Africa. Foreign direct investment slid 70% from 2009 to 2010. Nelson Mandela is retired from politics and 93 years old; his absence from public view at the 2010 World Cup speaking to his age and frailty. The ANC’s choices next year at the Bloemfontein/Mangaung conference could determine if Africa’s only G-20 nation continues to set an example of modernization and liberal democracy for its poorer neighbors, or if it follows the tragic path of Zimbabwe.