SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA (Reuters) - The firebrand leader of South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters on Saturday launched his party’s campaign for what are expected to be closely-fought local elections, promising to rescue voters from poverty, unemployment and corrupt government.
EFF president Julius Malema chose the highly-symbolic backdrop of Soweto, Africa’s most famous township outside Johannesburg and just a stone’s throw from Nelson Mandela’s last home before his arrest, to lay down his challenge to the ruling African National Congress whose youth wing he once headed.
With the ANC’s vast majority now straining under the weight of President Jacob Zuma’s scandal-plagued leadership and high unemployment as the economy stutters, opposition parties have made inroads into the liberation party’s strongholds.
Formed just three years ago the EFF won 6 percent of the vote at national polls in 2014 to become the third largest party and the second largest in opposition.
The radical left party has collected large chunks of support in working class areas, and is seen likely to gain further ground in forthcoming polls after scoring several political victories and championing economic causes such as mine nationalisation and redistribution of land.
The EFF last month pushed the Constitutional Court to deliver a ruling that Zuma had violated his oath of office and was liable for a portion of the $16 million spent on renovations to his rural home in Nkandla.[nL5N1730IZ]
“I am happy to report to you that we have stopped the Nkandla corruption,” Malema said to roaring cheers, just days after police said they were investigating him for “inflammatory speech” after he said the EFF was willing to take power by “the barrel of a gun” in a TV interview.
Lashing the ANC for its patchy record in providing basic services and accusing it of pandering to the middle-class, Malema pledged that the EFF would give the poor land, water and electricity, as well as free internet access.
“The EFF will not build bicycle lanes (for the affluent) as long as the people still stay in the shacks,” said Malema, donning his trademark red, Che Guevara-style beret that has become a popular symbol of militant politics among young South Africans.
Some analysts expect another court ruling, to be handed down on Friday and ordering a review of a 2009 decision to drop 783 corruption charges against Zuma, to hurt the ANC at the ballot box.[nL5N17W322]
“I’m not sure it’s going to benefit the EFF in the elections, because the issues they are claiming credit for are not really grass roots issues,” said political analyst at NKC African Economics Gary van Staden.
But rubbish collector and former ANC supporter Raymond Ngwana, 40, said it was because of Malema’s EFF that corruption in national government and local municipalities was being exposed.
“I remember some years back Archbishop (Desmond) Tutu said if you put in Zuma as president the world will laugh at us. Look now that’s exactly what’s happening.”
Additonal reporting by TJ Strydom; Editing by Richard Balmforth