JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A party of South African radical leftists has emerged as electoral kingmaker in major cities Pretoria and Johannesburg, giving a first taste of power to an ANC renegade who was once an acolyte of President Jacob Zuma.
This week's municipal elections have shown just slender nationwide gains for Julius Malema's red beret-wearing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who are demanding nationalization of mines and banks and a redistribution of wealth to poor black people as antidotes to still-glaring inequality.
The three-year-old party - contesting its first local elections - has not reaped as much rewards from voters deserting the ruling African National Congress as the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), and is in a distant third place in the elections with about 8 percent of the vote countrywide.
That result suggests South Africa's flatlining growth and persistently high unemployment - at the official rate one in four people is without a job - is not translating into a wholesale slide toward the EFF's brand of militant socialism.
But the ANC's worst losses since the end of apartheid have shifted South Africa from what was effectively a one-party system into an era of coalition politics - allowing the EFF to punch above its weight in the role of kingmakers.
The calculus has thrown up two results that put 35-year-old Malema in the box seat in Gauteng, the province that includes Johannesburg and Pretoria and accounts for 40 percent of the economy.
Neck-and-neck races between the ANC and DA in Johannesburg and Tshwane - home to the capital Pretoria - mean the EFF's 10 percent share of the vote will be needed for coalitions there.
As it became clear his party could hold the balance of power, Malema - who was only 13 when white-minority rule ended and is one of the young generation of South African politicians adept on social media - put out a cryptic three-word tweet on Thursday: "Talks about talks".
Which way he jumps remains a mystery, and neither option is particularly palatable to Malema, if his past comments are anything to go by.
The EFF's 8 percent vote share countrywide, with nearly all ballots counted, would represent a gain of just 2 percentage points from national elections two years ago.
It has won some support from voters frustrated about inequality in a country where black people make up about 80 percent of the 54 million population, yet most of the economy in terms of ownership of land and companies remains in the hands of white people, who are about 8 percent of the population.
But the party is still a long way behind the DA, which has won about 26 percent of the vote and the ANC which leads with about 54 percent.
Ideologically, the EFF is closer to the ANC, which at the national level is in a formal governing alliance with the Communist Party.
Malema joined the ruling party when he was nine, rising to head the party's Youth League, and once proclaimed his readiness to kill for Zuma. However, his devotion turned to animosity and he was expelled from the ANC in 2012 for misconduct and went on to found the EFF the following year.
He displays an intense and personal hatred of the president, particularly over his refusal to pay back some of the $16 million of state money spent on his personal home, as ordered by a constitutionally mandated anti-corruption watchdog in 2014.
Malema and DA leader Mmusi Maimane, the first black leader of a party traditionally seen as the political home of wealthy whites, have ruled out any chance of doing a deal with the ANC.
Which leaves, as the only option left, Malema getting into bed with the DA - a party he has consistently scorned as an agent of the "white monopoly capital" he says still controls Africa's most industrialized economy.
Curiously such a deal might have long-term benefits for both the EFF and DA by forcing them to find common ground closer to the political center and showing their respective core constituencies, black and white voters, that they are not the devils they are depicted to be.
"Ideologically, the two parties are like oil and water - they don't mix. But what is ideological about eradicating bucket toilets?" said Prince Mashele of the Pretoria-based Centre for Politics and Research.
"The EFF will have to tone down the anti-white rhetoric and the DA will have to learn how to talk to a young unemployed man living in a township," he said. "Ultimately, that's good for South Africa."
Editing by Pravin Char