SPORTING a bright red jump suit and his red revolutionary beret, Julius Malema arrived at the stadium in Witbank, a gritty coal mining town two hours east of Johannesburg, to wild cheers from the crowd.
His phalanx of thick-set security men dressed in blue naval combat fatigues and dark glasses looked like poor parodies of the evil henchmen in a James Bond film.
But the firebrand leader of the ultra-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) knew how to play this crowd perfectly. His promise to end “slave wages” in the mines and increase the minimum wage were greeted with roars from his adoring supporters.
“We will redistribute the power through the nationalisation of banks and mines,” Malema, 33, told The Sunday Times after the rally.
“That’s how we’ll take power from the elite. We’re going to take the land from these people, from the whites and the elite, and then give this land back to the people.”
Malema, who faces fraud and racketeering charges and was expelled from the African National Congress (ANC) in 2012 after he sang the apartheid-era struggle song, Shoot the Boer, poses the movement with the biggest threat it has yet faced from the left.
In Witbank, the anger was palpable. Thabo Seshoashoa, 34, a coal miner, said: “The ANC promises them a better life. Where is this better life? It’s only the better life for a rich elite. How can our president build homes for his cows but not for his people?”
He was referring to the $23m of taxpayers’ money that President Jacob Zuma spent on his private home, including a new cattle kraal.
Last week, the scandal-plagued Zuma, 72, was forced to cancel a trip to Johannesburg’s platinum belt in case he was attacked by striking miners. ANC offices there have been burnt down.
His voice booming over the rally’s loudspeakers to more wild cheers, Malema said: “The EFF is the only party for each and every worker — the mine workers, the farm workers. You must continue to fight for better salaries and better working conditions.”
But it is not only mining towns where the anti-ANC backlash can be felt. In the mines, at least, there are jobs. In townships such as Bekkersdal, an hour’s drive from Johannesburg, where tiny tin and mud shacks are cramped together, there is a sense of utter hopelessness.
Unemployment is rampant. ANC politicians are not welcome here. Tyres are burnt and rocks hurled whenever a government delegation visits.
The police have responded by firing rubber bullets and sometimes, residents say, live ammunition at protesters.
“The sewers are blocked, there are no jobs, no proper houses. People are living in shacks,” said Richie, 20, who has been unable to find work ever since leaving school in Bekkersdal two years ago.
Malema, who claims the charges against him are politically motivated, has tapped into this deep vein of discontent among ordinary people with his message that it is time to give the ANC “a wake-up call”.
This week, up to 25m South Africans will head to the polls to vote in their country’s fifth multiracial, democratic elections since the collapse of the apartheid regime 20 years ago.
It is a milestone in South African history: the first elections without the guiding light of Nelson Mandela, credited with ensuring that the transition from white minority rule went peacefully.
They will also be the first in which the country’s “born-free” generation of 18 to 20-year-olds such as Richie, born after the end of apartheid, are able to vote.
This generation has grown disillusioned with Zuma’s government and the ruling black elite that seems corrupt and distant from their lives.
Like Richie, many born-frees will not be voting for the ANC, even though it is synonymous with Mandela and the overthrow of apartheid.
“We’re sick of being told that we should vote for the ANC because of its history, because it gave us freedom,” Richie said.
The born-frees are motivated by a litany of grievances: poor education, systemic corruption, high levels of unemployment and the lack of basic services in the country’s townships and rural areas.
Many of these grievances are justified. Unemployment is higher than it was in 1994 and almost half of young people are jobless. Life expectancy is lower than it was 20 years ago. In terms of income distribution, South Africa is a more unequal society now than it was during apartheid.
Even the racial harmony that Mandela dreamt of is under threat. Many black born-frees complain that their white peers are far more likely to get a job when they leave university. And the upper echelons of the country’s economy are still dominated by white businessmen, they point out.
“We’re not disrespecting Mandela’s legacy by voting against the ANC: we have a new struggle as young people,” said Lethabo Bogatsu, 21, a privately educated student intern at a magazine in Johannesburg, who considers herself part of the growing black middle class.
“Sure, our parents struggled for democratic freedom, but we must now struggle for economic freedom.”
Her words echo those of Malema, whose populist rhetoric was lapped up by the miners at Thursday’s rally in Witbank, a town famous for two things: sheltering a young war correspondent called Winston Churchill as he fled captivity during the Second Boer War and the coal mines that still litter its landscape.
Surrounding the town, vast golden fields of maize stretch far into the horizon. “All white-owned,” said Sinethemba Tshona, a 26-year-old gold miner with a gold tooth and a bandana.
The ANC is still tipped to win about 60% of the vote despite the challenge not only from the EFF but also from the opposition Democratic Alliance, which could win in both Pretoria and Johannesburg.
Older and rural voters will ensure that the ANC will emerge as the largest party. The nation will have to wait another five years for the change many pray for. By then, there will be more born-frees.
It appears many of them will take Mandela’s words from 1993 to heart: “If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.”
Bogatsu lamented: “We are not as great a nation as we should be. We’ve been sold this dream and we’ve nothing to show for it. But we have our own dream and we will fight to achieve it.”