Julius Malema Hopes South Africa Abandons Nelson Mandela's Party

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - He wears a bright red beret and jumpsuit to represent a “workers’ revolution.”

Julius Malema is the 33-year-old leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, a new political party that he claims will get 10 percent of the vote as South Africa goes to the polls on Wednesday.

His superstar status is down to a sharp mind, a sharper tongue and a powerful message that resonates with many young, black South Africans: Twenty years after the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) party hasn’t delivered.

“The leadership became selfish, self-serving and started looting state resources for their personal accumulation,” Malema said during an interview with NBC News, referring to rampant official corruption.

“They no longer care about the masses on the ground,” added Malema, who has vowed to redistribute wealth to the poor.

Malema has become an outlet for the frustration of much of South Africa’s youth -- anger which might explain why only one-third of adults born after 1994 have bothered to register to vote.

This disillusionment of the so-called born free generation -- those born after the end of white-only rule -- in a country where the potential of politics is well known reflects badly on the young democracy.

While South Africa is richer and safer than it was at the end of racist apartheid rule, it is still blighted by racial and economic inequality. And its education system was found to be the 146th best of the 148 countries included in a survey by the World Economic Forum.

“Our people have been misled for quite some time to believe that everything is good. The reality is that our people are in a worse situation,” said Malema, who is a former head of the ANC Youth League. “It’s no longer the party of Nelson Mandela. It’s no longer advocating what Nelson Mandela stood for.”

Julius Malema, then the ANC Youth League leader, and South African President Jacob Zuma cut the cake at a rally in Cape Town on October 30, 2010.Gallo Images / Getty Images, file

As an example, Malema cites the revelation that President Jacob Zuma spent around $23 million of taxpayers’ money on refurbishments to his palatial private home.

Nevertheless, Malema and other opposition parties face an uphill battle, despite widespread evidence of corruption and mismanagement. His Economic Freedom Fighters is expected to get around 5 percent of the vote.

A big threat to the ANC comes from the Democratic Alliance, the largest opposition party, which might win 23 percent of the vote, according to an opinion poll by IPSOS. It already controls one of the country’s nine provinces, the Western Cape, and hopes to win the richest, Gauteng, which includes the city of Johannesburg.

The poll suggests the ANC might get 63.9 percent of the poll, two points less than its share in 2009. The party’s role in the liberation struggle means that it is seen by many as the natural party of government, whatever its perceived faults.

Still, Malema and others believe now is the time for South Africans to turn their backs on the ANC. When he took to the stage at his final rally at a stadium in Pretoria on Sunday, with thousands of supporters chanting his name, his pledge to become a serious electoral force seemed believable, and underlined the deep unhappiness that many in this country feel about the ANC.

Helen Zille, leader of South Africa's opposition party Democratic Alliance, arrives on stage at a final campaign rally in Johannesburg on May 3.MARCO LONGARI / AFP - Getty Images

Is the perspective of Malema -- who opponents accuse of being a “mini Robert Mugabe” with a dangerous vision that includes a plan to nationalize the country’s mines -- correct?

Loyalty to the ANC -- perceived as the party of the liberation struggle -- means an election victory is guaranteed, this time around at least. But if its majority is badly dented in the vote, South Africans might begin to imagine a day when the “natural party of government” is no longer in office.