SA News Agents|For two long hours, his supporters had been whipped into a fervour with revolutionary slogans, thumping music, and warm-up speeches at a packed stadium in the township of Alexandra in Johannesburg.
Finally, their leader appeared, emerging from a German limousine and taking a lap of honour around the venue, milking the roars of approval flooding down from the stands.
“Forward to victory in 2019 – forward,” the crowd chanted ahead of Wednesday’s general elections.
Malema, the self-styled “commander-in-chief” of the Economic Freedom Fighters, EFF, wore the party’s signature red beret and was surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards known as “defenders of the revolution.”
The radical left EFF, South Africa’s third biggest party, hopes to make major gains in the election if the ruling ANC pays the price of deep public disenchantment over delays in poverty eradication since apartheid ended in 1994.
“He is the only one to feel our pain. He is the only one to help the people,” said Steven Chauke, 58, a local man who has been unemployed for 16 years.
“Over the last 25 years, the ANC has never worked for the people, only for themselves. He’s the one who is going to liberate us.”
One week before the election, Malema chose to hold his 1 May rally in friendly territory.
How the EFF’s support base has grown
Alexandra – known to locals as “Alex” – is a congested and poverty-stricken neighbourhood close to the contrasting wealth of Johannesburg’s Sandton financial district.
It has suffered badly from the failures of ANC rule – massive unemployment, non-existent public services, crime and corruption.
Such issues allowed Malema, who was once an ANC youth leader, to form his own party in 2013 and build it within a few years into a growing force within South African politics.
“Alex is the home of the EFF, the home of the poor,” he told the crowd. “Don’t go to some decorated places… Alex is what South Africa looks like.
“Today Alex says: ‘enough is enough’.”
Up in the stands, Kukie Ijeo, 47, from Hillbrow – another of Johannesburg’s toughest districts – lapped up Malema’s speech.
“We don’t have anything, we need jobs, we need houses, we need water, electricity, land, education,” she said.
“We just want everything promised in our (post-apartheid) constitution – but nothing has changed yet.”
Malema relentlessly targets ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa over the country’s economic tribulations, the ruling party’s many corruption scandals, and Ramaphosa’s alleged favouring of the country’s white minority – which still hold most of the wealth.
The EFF’s policy is to grab land from largely white owners — individuals and companies – to give to poor blacks.
“We must expropriate land without compensation and give it to the people of Alexandra to build their own houses. Let’s share the wealth of South Africa,” Malema told the rally.
Malema calls for calm
“Let us build a solid foundation for an African child so that an African child will grow up not being scared of a white counterpart,” he said, touching on the incendiary topic of race relations in South Africa.
“I have no problem with white people at all, I’ve a problem with them being treated special,” he told AFP during the campaign, dismissing accusations of anti-white racism.
“No white is going to be killed or beaten up under an EFF government. It will never happen, but they will have to come down from their high horse,” he said.
Malema’s approach appears to be working as he builds support among the young and poor.
Malema, aged just 38, sees himself as the next president of South Africa, though analysts doubt this will happen.
“The EFF will do well, something around 10 percent, maybe above,” Frans Cronje, head of the Institute of Race Relations, said.
“But they can’t get much more than that because the majority of this country is moderate conservative.”
Not all black South Africans are sold on Malema’s fiery rhetoric and outlandish promises.
“He is like all politicians,” Respect Nethananai, 34, an Alexandra resident, grumbled. “He just wants power.”
Malema appears unwilling to temper his rhetoric, despite having been hauled before a tribunal for hate speech – saying his party would not seek the slaughter of whites “at least for now”.
In typical defiant fashion, he ended his May Day speech by singing the anti-apartheid struggle song “Kill the Boer (farmer)”, which has previously landed him in legal trouble.
But he changed the lyrics to “Kiss the Boer” – a joke that triggered raucous delight from his faithful followers.