By Ed Cropley
BEKKERSDAL, South Africa (Reuters) - Color has always been central to South African politics, but now, nearly 20 years after the end of apartheid, the tint of your T-shirt matters as much as that of your skin.
While the yellow, green and black of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) remains dominant, it is the bright red of an ultra-leftist party founded by expelled ANC youth leader Julius Malema that is making the big splash.
With the silver-tongued Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) only 100 days old and untested by any opinion poll, it is hard to say precisely how much impact they will have on next year's elections in Africa's biggest economy.
But the garish shirts and red Che Guevara-style berets popping up in the sprawling townships and shanty towns of Johannesburg and Pretoria suggest the Fighters, as they like to be known, will make their mark in the first election for the 'Born Free' generation - voters born after apartheid ended in 1994.
The anger of the millions of blacks for whom life has changed little in the two decades since the end of white-minority rule has provide fertile hunting ground, and any EFF success is almost certain to be at the expense of the ANC, which won two thirds of the vote in the last election in 2009.
"We are recruiting people every day," said Happy Lefekane, a 39-year-old EFF activist in Bekkersdal, a run-down township 40 km (25 miles) west of Johannesburg which experienced a week of rioting last month over shoddy public services.
Although township riots are common - one major "service delivery protest" happens every two days, according to monitoring group Municipal IQ - the Bekkersdal uprising was notable for its intensity and explicit rejection of the ANC.
When provincial premier Nomvula Mokonyane went to try and calm the crowd, she made matters worse by telling them the ANC did not need Bekkersdal's "dirty votes". She had to be rescued from the mob and drive out in a police armored vehicle.
To the EFF activists feeding off the public frustration at the ANC's perceived failings - corruption, inefficiency and arrogance - it was a gift.
"Nomvula has opened up a can of worms. She is the best recruiting agent we've got," Lefekane told Reuters. "We don't want her apology. We want radical change."
Ominously, at the height of the unrest 20-year-old EFF activist Themba Khumalo was shot dead outside his tin shack by unknown gunmen. No arrests have been made but Khumalo's friends are in little doubt he died because of the color of his beret.
"The ANC people are the ones who started this," said EFF activist Ruth Mogatwe, 30, at a wake held for Khumalo a week later. "There's no proof but I think they're the ones who killed the guy."
The ANC denies it resorts to political violence and has called for tolerance and "good behavior" from its members.
MALEMA THE MILITANT
Malema, who holds up Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe as a political model for his seizure of white-owned farms, was kicked out of the ANC 18 months ago, officially for ill-discipline - unofficially for challenging President Jacob Zuma.
The 32-year-old quickly found a political lifeline in the police killing of 34 strikers at Lonmin's Marikana mine in August last year, an incident that brought comparisons with the Sharpeville massacre by apartheid security forces in 1960.
Cashing in on simmering worker discontent in the mines, which are still overwhelmingly owned and run by whites, and on public outrage at the shootings, Malema formed a party with an unashamedly populist message to take on the ANC from the left.
It formally launched - at Marikana - on October 13.
"The Economic Freedom Fighters is a radical and militant economic emancipation movement," its website declares, outlining expropriation of land and nationalisation of the mines and banks without compensation as central policies.
It says it has no major financial backers and funds itself through small donations and wholesaling party regalia. It also declines to release membership numbers.
The mainstream dismisses the EFF as sloganeers, but the raw promise of change - irrespective of the ability to deliver it - has struck a chord with blacks fed up with waiting in dead-end townships for houses, jobs and sewers that never arrive.
"The EFF will take voters from the ANC's populist flank," said political analyst William Gumede of Wits Business School in Johannesburg. "On a very good day, if they can get their voters out, they might get 8 percent nationally. But it could be anywhere from 1 percent to 8 percent."
Independent political consultant Nic Borain also admits that forecasting the EFF vote is pure conjecture, but his estimates are rising and now stand at 3-5 percent.
More social unrest and they could rise further.
"Malema et al are preternaturally good at identifying issues to maximize mobilization and are excellent at 'flying picket' type organization," Borain said.
"If they get moving, they might just take off."
ANC FACES PRESSURE
Having won nearly 66 percent of the vote in the last elections in 2009, there seems no prospect of the ANC losing its majority next year after two decades of a steady hand on the economic tiller and a broadly pro-business policy agenda.
However, its share has been waning ever since the euphoria of Nelson Mandela's accession to power in 1994, and if it polls below 60 percent, the knives will be out for Zuma, whose five years in office have been marked by scandal, feeble growth and a good deal of social unrest.
The broadening appeal of the Democratic Alliance (DA), the main opposition party, has been nibbling at the ANC in the centre, but it is the sudden arrival of the EFF on the left flank that has ramped up the chances of an ANC bloody nose.
Whereas frustrated blacks have always moaned about the ANC in the run-up to previous elections, on voting day it has always been a leap too far to vote for the DA, still seen as the party of white privilege.
The EFF carries no such race-tinged baggage, and at Bekkersdal and other protests it has demonstrated a canny knack for grass-roots organization and keeping itself in the limelight.
This week's defection to the Fighters of high-profile ANC lawyer Dali Mpofu has even stirred speculation the EFF might lure "Mother of the Nation" Winnie Mandela, former wife of Nelson. She emerged as a heavy-hitting Malema backer in his internal party struggle with Zuma.
But the ANC denies it fears bleeding votes or members to the EFF, saying other new parties have come and gone since the advent of democracy with no meaningful dent to its popularity.
"When people vote, they vote for physical change, for improvement of their lives," spokesman Keith Khoza said. "They don't vote for people who just shout slogans. They vote for people who have what it takes to change their lives."
(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)