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Julius Malema's party, which won only 6 per cent of the vote in 2014, is expected to almost double its support in this election.MICHELE SPATARI/AFP/Getty Images

Julius Malema revels in his role as the racial provocateur of the rainbow nation. The self-proclaimed “commander-in-chief” of South Africa’s third-biggest party is famed for his military-style red beret, his verbal attacks on the country’s white and Indian minorities and his loud demands for the seizure of white-owned farmland.

“We are not calling for the slaughtering of white people – at least for now,” he declared in one of his most ominous comments.

The members of his far-left populist party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), have become notorious for brawling with security guards, threatening journalists and trashing the retail stores of corporations that offend them. “Let’s attack, fighters,” Mr. Malema urged his followers at one rally. “When the enemy raises its ugly head, don’t hit the head, cut the head.”

The rise of the EFF is a symptom of broader trends. A quarter-century after their first democratic elections, South Africans are increasingly disillusioned with the mainstream parties. Apathy and alienation are on the rise, and smaller, radical parties are luring voters away.

Despite the hate-speech complaints that have dogged him for years, Mr. Malema is positioned to become a kingmaker after next week’s national elections.

His party, which won only 6 per cent of the vote in 2014, is expected to almost double its support in this election. More importantly, it has a chance to hold the balance of power in two key provinces: Gauteng, where Johannesburg and Pretoria are located, and Western Cape, where Cape Town is located.

The African National Congress, which has governed South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994, is expected to win again on May 8. But after capturing almost two-thirds of the vote in earlier elections, the ANC has been in decline over the past decade, and pollsters say its support could fall below 60 per cent this time.

In local elections in 2016, the EFF finished third – but won enough votes to hold the balance of power in Johannesburg and Pretoria, pushing the ANC out of office there. Now, according to polls, it could also become the kingmaker in Gauteng and Western Cape, where coalition governments will be necessary if no party wins 50 per cent of the vote. In exchange for its support, the EFF will be able to issue new demands to its coalition partners.

While it remains far behind the ANC in popular support, and even trails the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA) party, the EFF has wielded an outsized impact on South African politics. It has been successful in pushing its land-seizure policies onto the national agenda. It has eroded the ANC’s long-standing support for non-racialism. It has normalized a more virulent form of political rhetoric. And it has stoked the anger of South Africa’s younger generation of blacks, who are increasingly impatient with the high rates of joblessness and economic inequality.

Mr. Malema, a 38-year-old former leader of the ANC’s youth wing, was twice found guilty of hate speech in South African courts and was later expelled from the ruling party for “bringing the ANC into disrepute and sowing divisions within its ranks.” But his popularity among disaffected blacks has sparked efforts to lure him back. “I love Julius,” ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule said this month. “I am talking to him to return home.”

While the ANC is splintering into feuding factions and losing national support after years of economic stagnation and corruption, the opposition DA has failed to capitalize on the growing discontent. Instead, ANC supporters are switching to smaller and newer parties such as the EFF – or refusing to vote at all.

One of the new parties, the church-backed African Transformation Movement, shocked the country by winning 30 per cent of the vote in a recent by-election. Another new party, the radical Black First Land First party, which routinely threatens violence against white people, pulled off its own political coup by visiting former president Jacob Zuma at his home and winning his unofficial support, barely a year after the ANC forced him to resign in a corruption scandal.

But while the smaller parties could make gains, millions of South Africans are abandoning the elections entirely. Only about 75 per cent of eligible voters have registered to vote – the lowest percentage since apartheid. Among younger South Africans, it’s even worse: Only 54 per cent of eligible voters in their 20s have registered, and only 19 per cent of the youngest (18- and 19-year-olds) have done so. Both latter numbers are much lower than in the 2014 election.

“The number of alienated voters is at its highest ever,” said Ferial Haffajee, a veteran South African journalist and commentator, who calls it a worrisome development.

The alienation is a reflection of growing unhappiness with the ANC, which has presided over a decade of persistently high unemployment and stagnant growth, along with a series of corruption scandals. But most voters aren’t willing to switch to the main alternatives; the DA is still perceived as a white-dominated party and the EFF is considered too radical and divisive.

South African scholar David Everatt, using polling data from Gauteng province, predicts that one-third of the black middle class will not vote in this election. “Those who will never forgive the ANC its past sins are either opting out or voting EFF,” he wrote in a recent report.

The result is a dangerous level of distrust and apathy, which could make it difficult for President Cyril Ramaphosa to mobilize support for future policies, even if he wins next week, analysts say. South Africa could be heading for years of drift and paralysis as Mr. Ramaphosa struggles to heal the divisions.

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