Julius Malema has a plan to rescue South Africa from what he and his radical party view as decades of failure under the ruling African National Congress. It is to strip land from the wealthy, seize assets from the mining companies and spend the proceeds on education, free WiFi and electricity, and 24-hour doctors’ clinics.

Promises such are these have rallied a section of South African society behind his political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, as the clock ticks down ahead of Wednesday’s general election that is viewed as the most consequential since the end of apartheid.

The EFF, the third-largest party after the ANC and opposition Democratic Alliance, is among those jockeying for votes as the ANC threatens to slip below a 50 per cent majority for the first time since it swept to power 30 years ago. This could hand the firebrand Malema influence over a future coalition, including as a possible kingmaker, and on the debate over how South Africa drags itself out its economic malaise. His anti-capitalist views on the redistribution of wealth are a case in point. 

“When we say we want to give you land, it’s not a joke, it’s not a campaigning strategy,” Malema told the crowd at a pre-election rally this month in the poor Eastern Cape township of Kwazakhele.

“I started the battle for the land when I was in the ANC Youth League,” he recalled of his time in the party that expelled him in 2012. He founded the EFF the following year. “I said ‘let’s expropriate land without compensation, let’s nationalise the mines’,” added the gifted orator, who has a talent for stirring a crowd.

Julius Malema greets pensioners after speaking at a Workers’ Day event on May 1, 2024, in Soshanguve outside Tshwane, South Africa
Julius Malema greets pensioners after speaking at a Workers’ Day event in Soshanguve which is about 30km north of South Africa’s capital of Pretoria © Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

He and others in the crowd of several hundred wore the EFF’s trademark red berets. Some were emblazoned with the slogan ‘2024 is our 1994’ that evokes memories of a more hopeful era and the first democratic vote that installed Nelson Mandela as president.

Malema’s Marxist-tinged manifesto resonates in a country where the government is accused of a litany of failures, including to reduce poverty and economic inequality.

Sibingelelo Mguga, an unemployed artist and green activist who attended the Kwazakhele rally, said he had never cast his ballot for the EFF before, but added: “I’ll vote for anyone who can help me find work.”

Malema likes to invoke comparisons between wealthier white South Africans and the poorer Black majority — a sore point in a country that still bears the scars of apartheid. The opposition DA has accused the EFF leader of stoking ethnic violence by routinely singing the anti-apartheid struggle song, “Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer”.

The 43-year-old EFF leader rejected that accusation. “I don’t go around fighting white people,” he told the Kwazakhele crowd. “I don’t want to take their property, I don’t want them to go into the sea and go back. No, I want them to share the land.”

Restoring dignity is a central theme of a campaign pitched to young voters in a country where the unemployment rate for those under the age of 34 is 45.5 per cent, and who do not have the sentimental attachment to the ANC of their elders. 

A crowd welcomes Economic Freedom Fighters party leader Julius Malema as he speaks during an event on May 16, 2024, in Inanda, a township outside Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
A crowd welcomes EFF leader Julius Malema at a campaign event in Inanda, a township outside of Durban © Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

Bongani Sohgwiqi, a pastor in Kwazakhele, attended the rally but insisted he had no intention of abandoning the ruling party. “My parents were ANC — I grew up ANC. If the EFF were to get in, they’d do the same as the ANC anyway,” he said.

It is a common fear, as the corruption scandals that have dogged the party have also snared the leadership of the EFF, notably the claim that some of them benefited financially from the R2bn ($108mn) stolen from VBS Mutual Bank, which precipitated its collapse in 2018.

Yet despite the weaknesses that have sapped the ANC’s support, Malema’s party has largely failed to drum up the level of enthusiasm that some would have expected.

The EFF took 10.8 per cent of the vote in South Africa’s last national election, in 2019. But polls this time put it not much higher, peaking at 11.5 per cent.

Ralph Mathekga, a political analyst, said the EFF’s failure to secure a larger vote share was revealing of South African society.

“South Africa isn’t a radicalised country. The youth don’t see becoming anti-establishment as a solution to dealing with the establishment. Irrespective of how lethargic the ANC has been, the youth hasn’t gravitated to the EFF as you’d expect,” he said.

This is a break with the past, given that opposition from young people was one of the hammers that smashed apartheid, exemplified by the 1976 Soweto riots over the government’s insistence that children learn Afrikaans in schools.

Mbali Ntuli, a former parliamentarian with the DA, said it was wrong to think the EFF should appeal to the youth simply because it had younger leaders.

The EFF appealed to those “who are either pissed off with the ANC, or those inclined to being anti-establishment”, she said. “And it hasn’t won wider support because the majority of South Africans take a lot of time to consider how to vote, and aren’t easily going to believe a whole lot of nonsense.”

Yet even if the EFF captured a small vote, Malema’s possible role as a kingmaker keeps him in the public eye. He has said, for instance, that he would consider a coalition with the ANC, provided his deputy Floyd Shivambu be appointed finance minister — a prospect the DA said could turn South Africa “into the next Venezuela or Zimbabwe”.

The prospect of an ANC-EFF coalition scares the business sector in particular, as they view it as opening the way for more economically radical policies such as the expropriation of land and commercial assets.

Yet Roger Mark, emerging market fixed-income analyst at fund manager Ninety One, viewed the chances of the EFF joining government as “highly unlikely”.

This is partly because Malema’s long-running beef with the ANC would be difficult to put aside. But his overbearing radicalism also makes his party an uncomfortable coalition partner.

The EFF leader’s unwillingness to temper his inflammatory behaviour remains his Achilles heel, not just for potential allies in government but for some voters. It was on show at the Kwazakhele rally, as Malema wrapped up his speech with another rendition of “Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer”. The performance was punctuated by mock gunshots, verbally fired out over the watching crowd.

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