Julius Malema, 42, founded the EFF in 2013 after being thrown out of the ANC

Durban (South Africa) (AFP) - Rising in the polls and vying to become South Africa’s leading opposition party, the radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) launches its electoral campaign on Saturday ahead of a hotly contested vote.

Dozens of buses packed with EFF supporters arrived early morning in the country’s third largest city Durban, where firebrand leader Julius Malema is expected to unveil the party’s manifesto.

After a long overnight trip, 26-year-old tourism student Mnqondisi Nkosi said he was “tired but ready to see our leader Julius Malema”.

Young people waved the party flag out of windows, their excitement palpable, while scores of people danced and sang to artists performing on stage in Durban’s 55,000-seat stadium.

Food, water and sanitary pads were handed out as some frantically changed into the red-coloured party T-shirts on offer.

Street vendors selling meat, refreshments and party clothing were on every street around the venue.

Renowned for its theatrics, the EFF has gained prominence advocating radical reforms including land redistribution and nationalising key economic sectors to tackle deep inequalities that persist more than three decades after the end of apartheid.

“Malema is popular because he has risen up as a person who openly challenges authority head on for failing to liberate black people,” independent political analyst Sandile Swana told AFP.

The choice of Durban to launch the campaign is significant as the port city is located in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province, South Africa’s second most populous and a key electoral battleground.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) is set to launch its own manifesto at the same venue in two weeks.

“We are happy the EFF chose KZN this time around because political parties usually choose other provinces, this time they all want to be here,” Nompumelelo Nhlapho, 41, told AFP.

Malema, 42, founded the EFF in 2013 after being thrown out of the ANC, where he served as youth leader, for fomenting divisions and bringing the party into disrepute.

- ‘Taken care of’ -

Support has since grown, largely among young, black South Africans angered by widespread poverty and unemployment.

“I’m a member because the EFF has a bold leader who is not afraid of exposing the truth and he cares about creating jobs for the youth,” said Nkosi.

“This manifesto is important to us because we need to understand what direction we are taking as a party before elections,” added Nhlapho.

“We travelled since 3:00 am but they’ve provided us with everything we need for the day like food, water and pads, we are well taken care of,” she said.

Actively targeting universities and young voters, the militant party has won a string of student body votes in recent years, enlisting celebrities and influencers to spread its message.

“The EFF has formed an identity as a party of young intellectuals and thinkers who champion formal education for black people,” Swana said.

Some polls show it battling with the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA) for second place behind the ANC.

A recent Ipsos survey put the two parties tied at between 17 and 20 percent.

The DA, which in recent years has struggled to shake off its white, middle-class identity and win over black voters, has formed a coalition with several other groups in the hope of unseating the ANC.

But it has refused to join forces with the EFF, citing stark differences.

In power since the advent of democracy in 1994, the ANC risks losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, its reputation tainted by graft and mismanagement.

Polls show it could win as little as 40 percent of the vote – something that would force it to seek a coalition government to stay in power.