Sensing Zuma's vulnerability, Julius Malema launched a scathing attack on the president on Tuesday night. Things got personal, and now it looks like he might have played his aces too soon - and badly.
After the delegates at the ANC's national policy conference returned to their respective provinces, Mondli Makhanya, editor-in-chief at Avusa, noted a change in the president's demeanor.
"Defeat in the second transition debate was no small loss for the president. It was a very clear indicator of his precarious hold on power. That is why the president is mimicking Julius Malema and trying to occupy the militant space that the former youth league leader once occupied," wrote Makhanya.
"And the more unsure he becomes of his sway in the ANC, the more populist he will sound. Julius Malema will have returned. Older, but not wiser."
But Juju's not dead and he's not passing the populist baton willingly.
Addressing the Peter Mokaba memorial rally in Luka, North West, he launched a tirade against Zuma. It was Malema Unplugged, without the party constitution limiting his boiling green, black and gold blood.
Zuma's legacy is corruption and immoral leadership that lacks personal respect, said Malema. He called on the crowded hall to "save the ANC" from the "crisis" that would engulf the party if Zuma led until 2019.
Under Zuma the ANC will take less than 50% of the vote in 2014, said Malema. He called Msholozi out on his claim the ANC would rule until Jesus came, while the Democratic Alliance already governs the Western Cape. "This is an example of misleading leadership," he said.
He gave the president a lesson in populist rhetoric. "You will never know what land is until you own it There are no rich people without land. Land is everything. Land is the purpose the ANC was formed. It wasn't for VIPs," said Juju.
"We don't owe them fuck," he added, assumingly referring to expropriating land from white people without compensation. "We don't want to kill you not because we are scared (but) because we like peace."
Malema was riding on the confidence that followed last week's conference. Zuma was dealt a psychological blow when the title of the second transition document was rejected, supporters sung for Kgalema Motlanthe and ANC delegates reportedly came to blows over nationalisation.
But the expelled youth league firebrand didn't stop at leadership or policy issues. He launched piercing personal attacks on Zuma and ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu.
Malema asked what right Zuma had to discipline the Youth League while it's public knowledge that the president slept with a friend's daughter.
He suggested that when Zuma looked at the children of his friends, he didn't see children, but different opportunities.
Speaking to an enraptured crowd, he said Zuma's second transition document was rejected at the policy conference, but that he wouldn't know, because he's always sleeping.
Then the attack turned to Mthembu. He called the spokesman a drunk and his son a drug addict. (Mthembu has spoken frankly about the heartbreak he's endured dealing with his son's addiction.)
Why does Malema still get a platform when he's been expelled from the ANC? you might ask. "So Julius had views, how did they get in the paper?
Whether he is relevant or not, it appears the media decided that they want to make him relevant," said political analyst Ebrahim Fakir on Tuesday.
Malema's been one of the most polemic figures in post-Apartheid South Africa, and it would be naïve to think he couldn't command coverage in the lead-up to Mangaung.
But this Julius is unchained. By expelling the ANCYL leader the party let him loose, took away any control it had over him. If he were suspended he would need to toe the line for five years. But his only hope of returning to the party is through helping to topple Zuma and hoping for a reprieve post-Mangaung.
Any ANC leader would distance themselves from the vitriol, and Malema was smart enough not to associate Motlanthe or Tokyo Sexwale. And therein lies one of his key problems.
Malema's using the same tactics that brought down Mbeki, but this time he has no martyr to accompany him on stage. The game's subtler, quieter and smarter now. Motlanthe's letting the tide of support drift his way until he can announce his leadership ambitions. Meanwhile, Zuma's doing a perfectly good job of campaigning against himself.
But Juju's screaming to the heavens. How will members interpret it and how long will they listen to the bitter talk of an expelled member? In the marathon to Mangaung, he got a sniff of victory and might have sprinted to exhaustion. His tirade might just distract us all from what the "Anyone But Zuma" camp wants - the critical spotlight to remain on the president.