Cape Town - To chants of his nickname, “Juju, Juju,” Julius Malema strode by women blowing kisses and men raising clenched fists as he campaigned to whip up support for this year’s election with a call to nationalise South Africa’s mines, banks and land.
Addressing about 500 people in the town of Brits where police are under investigation for killing four protesters this month about 100 kilometres (62 miles) north of Johannesburg, Malema, 32, castigated the ruling African National Congress that he once championed as a youth leader for failing the nation’s poor.
The crowd cheered when he called President Jacob Zuma’s administration the “African National Criminal’s government.”
His message is finding resonance among a population facing 25 percent unemployment and townships across the country lacking basic services such as clean water and sanitation 20 years after the end of white-minority rule.
Started four months ago, Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters has become the nation’s third most popular party, with 4 percent support, behind the ANC and the Democratic Alliance, according to a recent opinion poll.
“I have hope that the EFF can deliver on the youth’s concerns like employment, better services for the community such as sanitation, because we live with sewage seeping in our streets every day,” Mpho Kobeng, a 27-year-old resident of the Ookasi township near Brits, said as she watched Malema.
“We don’t have clean water for our children and wait years for the government to deliver on promises to build houses.”
Malema’s change from firebrand ANC supporter, who backed Zuma’s rise to the party’s presidency in 2007, to staunch critic has been dramatic.
Born in the Seshego township in Limpopo province, Malema was raised by a single mother who was a domestic worker.
At the age of nine he joined an ANC youth group called Masupatsela, or trailblazers, who gained notoriety for tearing down posters of the then ruling National Party from police station walls.
As a 16-year-old, he incited fellow students to pelt their school with rocks, forcing its closure for the day.
Malema won election as the ANC Youth League president in 2008, and was expelled four years later because of his criticism of Zuma and refusal to accept the ruling party’s opposition to nationalisation.
“It is not what it was when we joined it,” Malema told reporters in Johannesburg on January 9.
“This is not the ANC of Nelson Mandela,” he said, referring to the nation’s first black president who died last month at the age of 95.
A survey of 3,564 adults interviewed by Ipsos in October and November gave the EFF 4 percent support, which would give the party 16 seats in the 400-seat National Assembly.
Support for the ANC dropped by 10 percentage points from a year earlier to 53 percent.
Malema says more than 400,000 people have paid a 10-rand fee to join its ranks.
At last count, the 102-year-old ANC had about 1.3 million members.
In contrast, Agang SA, a political party formed last year by ex-Gold Fields Ltd. Chairwoman Mamphela Ramphele, got 1 percent support in the opinion poll.
Ramphele said on January 28 she’ll integrate her party with the Democratic Alliance and stand as their presidential candidate.
Besides calling for nationalisation, the EFF wants the state to play a bigger role in the economy, provide free education, health care and housing and introduce minimum wages.
“Lots of people will vote for Malema because we want our land back and that’s what EFF has promised people,” Socks Makofane, 59, said as he waited for Malema to address the crowd in Mothotlung.
“We won’t just take it by force, but negotiations need to begin.”
Pressure from the EFF may force the ANC to waver from its investor-friendly policies should Malema’s party score significantly in the elections, which must be held by July, according to analysts at Citigroup Inc. and risk advisory company Maplecroft.
“Though this new political force is in no position to take power, its ability to attract disaffected elements from the ANC could encourage the ruling party to adopt a more radical stance in an attempt to avoid being outflanked,” Ben Payton, an Africa analyst at Bath, England-based Maplecroft, said in a January 13 report.
The ANC has won more than 60 percent support in every vote since it took power under Mandela in the nation’s first multiracial elections in 1994 by extending access to welfare grants and free housing.
Even so, there are signs of rising discontent among some shanty town residents who have seen scant improvement in their living conditions since apartheid ended.
There were 155 protests over a lack of shelter and basic services last year, and a record 173 in 2012, according to Johannesburg-based research group Municipal IQ.
Zuma, 71, was jeered by a crowd of tens of thousands attending a memorial service in Johannesburg for Mandela on December 10.
He’s been tainted by revelations that the state spent more than 200 million rand ($17.9 million) upgrading his private home in Nkandla in eastern KwaZulu-Natal province. Zuma denies any wrongdoing.
“In the ANC, when you steal, you get promoted,” Malema said in Brits.
ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe dismissed Malema’s allegations, saying at a January 28 press conference, “We can’t behave like an infant.”
Malema himself is due to stand trial in September on charges of corruption and money laundering.
He denies the allegations and calls the case he calls a political witch hunt.
His legal travails and tendency to flaunt expensive jewellry, clothes and cars appear to have had little impact on his popularity among his impoverished backers.
“Malema may have done some corrupt things in the past but he has seen his mistakes and is trying to make up for that now,” Kobeng said.
More than 5,000 supporters gave him a hero’s welcome at the EFF’s inaugural rally on October 13 in Marikana, about 50 kilometres from Mothotlung, where police shot dead 34 protesters at a Lonmin Plc mine in August 2012.
South Africa, with the largest known reserves of platinum, relies on metal exports for more than half its foreign-exchange.
“By focusing on localised issues, he’s able to outsmart some of the bigger parties who have very strong election machinery.
He’s saying to voters: ‘I care, you matter to me,’” Abdul Waheed Patel, managing director of Ethicore Consulting and Advisory Solutions, a political advisory service, said by phone from Cape Town on January 20.
Census data shows black citizens on average still earn a sixth of what their white counterparts do and 1.9 million households have no income.
The World Bank estimates almost 14 percent of the population of 53 million live on less than $1.25 a day.
“After 20 years of democracy, people are still not benefiting,” Sonwabo Mboneli, 34, an EFF member from Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township, said in a January 17 interview.
“The people don’t own the land. The people are not benefiting from the mines. The EFF has the policies to set that right.” - Bloomberg News