I’m not sure what exactly drew me to the EFF rally, but once I was closing in on Orlando Stadium, it became the sense of occasion.

Massive EFF flags waved from every lamp-pole. I trailed a minibus taxi waving one of those flags from its window, and hoots and raised fists in joint salute erupted from several cars passing by. Before the stadium, cars – new, German – were parked in their numbers alongside the decrepit buses. And then there was the crowd’s roar bouncing off the heavens.

Parking was expensive – R50 – but my guard considerately removed my aerial and told me to leave it inside otherwise “they will steal it”. Reluctantly, noticing that other cars seemed still to have aerials up, I did as I was told. On the walk in, I was whistled at and called out – usually umlungu, sometimes “Jesus”, which I often get in the townships and Hillbrow because of my beard. But then someone said “Ah, the notorious Jesus” and later another, “Look, Osama bin Laden”. Original. Hawkers were selling EFF paraphernalia of all kinds and were excited as I stopped to look, offering me decent prices for what looked like mostly high-quality stuff.

The EFF wins the prize for the best posters nationwide, with Malema’s face well-lit, the eyes bright and clear, the smile relaxed and welcoming. The line I hear from elders most often is, “I would be happy if my son-in-law looked like that”. (To be clear, most but not all of the elders who’ve said this to me are white). There is a contrast in the stadium, however, as the images emblazoned on flags and shirts and wraps and the stand-alone photographs being sold for sticking to the wall or bedside table came from an earlier time when he did not smile. A time when he was fat, when his double chin slumped. His “Gucci” era, defined by being “prepared to kill” for Zuma. This old face of Malema carries cache inside and the allure of a difficult origins story.

I think the photos are partly attractive because they profile Malema as a serious young man, mournful, bitter. “This event is bitter-sweet” said Dali Mpofu at the opening of the rally, before invoking three prayers. The third was a minute of silence for Malema’s grandmother, known as Koko Sarah Malema, who passed away the day before the ceremony, which must be a bitter loss for the family indeed.

There were a few white people visible in the press core and in the VIP booth. I did a full circuit of the stadium and saw one exception to this generalisation, which must explain why I stood out to so many. “Welcome” I heard from some, “touch my blood”. One man asked me to kiss his cheek. Some were happy to light my cigarette, others for me to hand one off. “We are not racists here, all are welcome. We want change. We want an end to corruption. We want jobs to grow!” 

The most startling moment came during one of the charismatic Christian hymns sung early on. A woman took me by the shoulders and then by the head and danced with me and sang the moving prayer into my face and I found myself singing back. We finished in a hug and I looked out at the stadium, at the bikers leaving the centre of it, at the somber face of a grandson whose family ancestry just added one more to their number, at the hopefully uplifted arms all round. Humans, looking for meaning, all of us.

Some kind of fight erupted a few rows down and the lady I’d danced with was one of those who intervened to keep the peace. I saw a lot of drink going around some parts. While she was gone, a man turned backwards and stared at me flatly for as long as the next hymn, which made me wonder if the dance I’d been in earlier was the cause of trouble. A few minutes later the lady offered to give me a new hat, which I had to refuse. Partly not to get her in trouble and partly not give the impression that I came to support the party. I came there to try understand it better, but more than that, to understand people that are drawn to it.

More than a million people will vote for the EFF on Wednesday. As with any large group there will be plenty of bad eggs in that group, selfish folk who aim to hurt. Some will be there to stay “with it”, as in the half-dozen twenty-somethings I know who will vote EFF because they think corruption is a problem and the DA is just “too white” for them to vote for it. A stalwart like MP Mosiuoa Lekota who leads Cope is off their radar because he is entirely lacking in that “it” factor that hooks adolescence.

But there are also those who genuinely think the EFF will bring a better, fairer life for all. I believe it will not, but the time for debating that point is not at a rally or in the voting line – it’s in the day-to-day to come after. One way I know I’m right is that Malema himself has publicly said he expects his policies, especially his call for Expropriation without Compensation, to bring “pain”. 

“If you are not prepared to take the pain,” he has argued you should not vote EFF. That wasn’t his message at the rally though. Instead he did a disservice to those who trust him – those with scant savings and few options, who can least afford to be wrong.

Gabriel Crouse is the George F D Palmer Financial Journalist Trust Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations

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Gabriel Crouse is a writer and analyst at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). His journalism is based on fieldwork and quantitative analysis, with a focus on land reform. Gabriel holds a degree in Philosophy from Princeton University.