Durban, South Africa - It was a matter of minutes until Julius Malema gained control of the chaos. The presidential candidate of South Africa's newest party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), was standing in the lecture theatre of the University of Kwazulu Natal on April 25. He was supposed to talk to the students, but supporters of the ruling African National Congress party (ANC) had come to disrupt the event.
For the first time since 1994, it seems like the EFF could become a threat to the governing ANC. The Democratic Alliance (DA), the ANC's official parliamentary opposition, is regarded by many black South Africans as a party representing the white elite.
Malema had come to Durban in the run-up to the May 7 elections. Since the fall of apartheid 20 years ago, Nelson Mandela's ANC has dominated the country's politics.
As riot police and security guards separated supporters of the ANC and EFF before Malema could begin his speech, the politician and his followers on the stage began singing songs borrowed from the struggle against apartheid.
Malema raised his hands, miming two guns. His eyes fixated on the protesters in the gallery, he aimed at them as his supporters chanted "dubula dubula" or "shoot, shoot" in Zulu, the lyrics from one of the songs.
"We can defeat them [the ANC]" is the message he delivered a few minutes later outside the lecture hall. "The ANC didn't want us to have a meeting. But we're having a meeting, which means they are defeated. And this is just round one."
Others disagree. "Malema is a liar! He is a communist! He tells lies!" shouted Andile Ndlovu, a member of the ANC Youth League, who tried to disrupt the speech from the gallery. "We must not listen to them."
But the ruling party has faced criticism since President Jacob Zuma spent 256 million rand ($24.1m) of taxpayer money to build a private residence.
'Poorest of the poor'
Some South Africans say the ANC has lost touch with its political base and has become complacent and corrupt. "The ANC is trying to dictate the political discourse," said Lubna Nadvi, a political science lecturer at UKZN. "They shouldn't be allowed to do so."
Despite anger over its governance in some quarters, polls indicate the ANC is likely to win the election.
Our priority is the nationalisation of the land.
Malema is a controversial figure in South African politics. Before founding the EFF, he was president of the ANC Youth League. Formerly a close friend of President Zuma, Malema was expelled in 2012 for sowing unrest and calling Zuma a "dictator".
Malema managed not only to survive the affair but reemerged as an even stronger politician. He seized on the anger among many working class South Africans following the massacre of miners on strike in Marikana when he launched the EFF last year.
Portraying himself as a modern-day Robin Hood who wins over the masses by cracking jokes about the current government, Malema and his party aim their slogans at the part of the population that he calls "the poorest of the poor".
His key message addresses one of South Africa's biggest problems: poverty.
"Our priority is the nationalisation of the land," Malema told Al Jazeera. "If you have land you have food. If you have land you can build a house."
According to Statistics South Africa, more than half of the population lives in dire living conditions, with 13.6 percent residing in shacks or informal settlements. With plans for land redistribution and the nationalisation of mines and banks, Malema promises to double social grants and alleviate poverty.
Godrich Gardee, the EFF's national election campaign coordinator, said in less than one year, more than 600,000 people have signed up for the party. "The number of supporters is in excess of 3.6 million, though," added Gardee. Many were mobilised when Malema and his red beret-wearing EFF brigade toured the country to rally support.
|Supporters of Julius Malema chant slogans outside a court where he appeared on charges of money laundering in 2013 [Reuters]
"We're an organisation that exists everywhere," said Malema. "We move to the most difficult areas where you might think there are no people. And yet we find people. We don't have posters, nor adverts, people just go around telling people the EFF is coming."
The party has installed election posters and banners in many parts of the country, but members insist it doesn't have money for a fancy campaign. Rumours about the party receiving funding from the Zimbabwean government were denied by the EFF leadership.
Malema addresses voters in the most neglected parts of the country. In Foreman Road, an informal settlement that lies right next to a wealthy neighbourhood in Durban, residents gathered to hear Malema speak.
The settlement includes thousands of shacks, built on a steep slope. There's rubbish on the ground and in a stream of sewage runs through the area.
Speaking through a megaphone, Malema criticised Zuma and the ANC's attempts to help residents out of poverty, framing his party as the country's only alternative to the ANC.
A lack of trust
But Malema has fierce critics in South Africa, especially in the media. Because of his ability to sell a picture of himself as the "son of the people", the slogan printed on the EFF's flyers, he is often portrayed as a populist demagogue who uses the poor as a means to rise to power.
On top of that, Malema has faced several legal charges, including corruption and tax evasion. He is due to appear in court later this year.
Maybe if this guy can be in power ... things can become a bit better for the poor.
Lindela Figlan, a resident of Foreman Road, attended Malema's rally. He said he lives in a shack towards the top of the settlement, which he said has a population of about 10,000. "You see our living conditions. It's too bad."
Although Figlan said he is "so happy to see Malema come here", he was not sure whether he would vote on May 7. "Like each and every political leader his speech is good, but implementing is always a different thing. Once they are in power they do whatever. That's why we are hesitating.
"You wouldn't even fit one of Zuma's cows into this shack," said Figlan jokingly as he walked up the settlement's hill past open sewage and stray dogs. News of Zuma spending 1 million rand ($90,000) on his cattle in Nkandla has reached every corner of the country.
Most Foreman Road residents come from South Africa's poorest province, the Eastern Cape. Figlan, who is unemployed, said they came to settle in the valley because "most of them work in the kitchens around here", earning between 300 and 600 rand ($30-$60) a month. The ladies around him said they will probably vote for Malema "because we need a change".
Figlan was not sure. "Maybe if this guy can be in power ... things can become a bit better for the poor."
One thing for certain, he said, is he would not vote for the ANC or the DA. That leaves only one real alternative - one that Julius Malema and his campaigners are well aware of when they proceed to the next township.
Follow Victoria Schneider on twitter