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JOHANNESBURG – With revolutionary rhetoric, bright red outfits and left-wing policies, the Economic Freedom Fighters have shaken up South Africa's political landscape, becoming a potent challenge to the ruling African National Congress.
Firebrand leader Julius Malema, 38, has a knack for catching headlines and appealing to South Africa's youth. Although the EFF has little chance of winning power in the Wednesday elections , the party's populist stance has pulled the governing ANC to the left.
At his final rally Sunday, Malema said his party is demanding a bigger share of South Africa's wealth from the country's white minority.
"White people, all we want is to join you at the dinner table and eat with you," said Malema to thousands of supporters in Soweto's Orlando Stadium. "If you do not want us to sit with you at the table, then we have no choice but to destroy the table."
It's a classic Malema quote, dramatically vowing to threaten the existing order.
As South Africans prepare to vote on Wednesday in what is expected to be a hotly contested national election, the EFF is once again a potential game-changer. Various polls indicate the party may increase its share of the vote to at least 12%, cutting further into the ANC's support.
When a group of rebellious youths broke away from the ANC in 2013, few saw their new party as the beginning of a realignment of the country's politics.
But eight months later, the EFF secured 6% of the vote in the 2014 national elections, making it the country's third biggest political party with 29 representatives in parliament. Two years later in municipal elections the EFF was central to ushering in a new era of coalition politics, exposing the ANC as vulnerable after nearly a quarter-century in power.
The EFF members wear red workers' overalls in parliament, saying the outfits show they represent the interests of South Africa's working class. With shouting, singing and other disruptive antics, the EFF representatives have been thrown out of parliament several times.
The EFF's militant, rebellious stance in parliament and the courts is partly credited with the removal from office last year of former president Jacob Zuma after persistent allegations of corruption.
Under Malema's charismatic leadership, the EFF is a divisive element with its populist brand of politics. Malema, a former ANC youth leader who was expelled from the party for criticizing then-president Jacob Zuma, has become one of the most influential politicians among South Africa's restless youth.
The EFF loudly promises that if elected it will expropriate white-owned land without compensation and nationalize South Africa's mines and banks.
Despite the dire economic consequences of such policies in countries like Venezuela and Zimbabwe, Malema's rhetoric has struck a chord with many black South Africans who remain poor 25 years after the end of apartheid, the harsh system of racial discrimination.
Malema draws capacity crowds when he speaks and many young South Africans see him as representing their struggles, while those who do not subscribe to his brand of politics see him as a radical who should never come close to a position of power.
Thapelo Thobejane, a 31-year-old resident of the teeming Alexandra township in Johannesburg, said he supports the EFF and Malema because he can relate to the party's messages about inequality in South Africa, especially in the workplace. He works as a waiter in a trendy downtown district.
"White workers earn more than black workers even though we have the same skills and do the same work," Thobejane said. "Malema is not afraid to speak about such things, and that encourages me because he is the only politician who seems to understand our everyday struggles."
Whites make up just under 10% of South Africa's population but still hold much of the country's wealth, while blacks make up nearly 80% of the population of 57 million.
Political analyst Ralph Mathekga, a researcher at the University of the Western Cape's Center for Humanities Research, attributed the EFF's popularity to the "drama and excitement" it brings. He expects the EFF to grow its electoral support to at least 10% in Wednesday's vote.
"They exposed South African politics as being very stale. Theirs is a mix of street, populist and intellectual politics," Mathekga said. "Their leaders are intellectual, educated elites but they appeal to ordinary people because they bring drama and excitement."
The rise of the EFF, despite being a leftist party, has similarities to the emergence of right-wing movements in parts of the world that have seen the election of populist leaders like Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
What they all have in common is an anti-establishment stance, Mathekga said.
Malema, who recently was accused of inciting violence against white farmers by singing the anti-apartheid song "Kill the Boer," ("Kill the white farmer") says the EFF is not anti-white but simply seeks equality for South Africa's black majority.
"The first thing we will deal with is the issue of land. We want to expropriate the land without compensation so that black people also benefit from its wealth," he said.
According to Malema, the EFF is portrayed as anti-white because it threatens the "ill-gotten privileges that white people enjoy, and which are being protected by the ANC." He points to the ANC's "failure" to transform's the country's economy, where fewer than 5% of the companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange are black-owned.
Although it is expected to increase its share of the vote in the upcoming elections, the EFF is unlikely to win or even to remove the Democratic Alliance as the official opposition as many South Africans remain skeptical of the party's stance.
"I simply do not trust those guys," said Thabiso Nkoana, a 38-year-old resident of Kagiso township in Johannesburg. "Even their popular stance about expropriating land, that is an ANC position for as long as I can remember. I feel that they are simply being too populist so they can get the votes they want."
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