S. Africa's huge election campaign rallies have largely relied on supporters bussed in
S. Africa's huge election campaign rallies have largely relied on supporters bussed in AFP

If there's one thing the parties competing in next week's South African general election don't want to talk about, it's bussing in supporters to fill out huge stadium rallies.

If there's one thing they all do, it's bus in supporters to fill out huge stadium rallies -- often handing out snacks, drinks and T-shirts to encourage high turn outs for the cameras.

Party spokespeople play this down, keen to give the impression that their leaders can draw spontaneous adoring crowds, but the vast fleets of buses are hard to miss.

And for South African voters, the long road trips, hand-outs and camaraderie have become part and parcel of campaigns.

Saturday's events, just days before Wednesday's vote, were no exception.

"We mobilise by WhatsApp," explained 37-year-old African National Congress (ANC) volunteer Myekeleni Mabaso, as crowds began to arrive at the huge 90,000-seat FNB Stadium for President Cyril Ramaphosa's last giant rally.

The ANC, which has won every South African election since the first post-apartheid contest in 1994, runs a community chat group in Maboso's district of Soweto, Ramaphosa's home town and a party stronghold.

Those who virtually raise their hand are picked up from home before dawn by a mini-cab and taken to an assembly point where they board a bigger bus to the stadium.

They are given fruit, water and a yellow ANC T-shirt.

"We fetch them by the house," Maboso told AFP, as hawkers stamped party supporters' hands and faces with green ANC logos for five rand ($0.27) a time.

Ramaphosa's rally was on home ground but a successful bussing operation was all the more important for one of his rivals, former president Jacob Zuma.

Last week, Zuma's uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party found more than 30,000 fans to fill the smaller 36,000-seater Orlando Stadium on the ANC's Soweto doorstep.

The result was a mini-triumph for his upstart opposition outfit and the party insisted in social media posts they had managed this without resorting to bussing in supporters from across the country.

Inside the stadium, however, AFP found supporters were largely from Zuma's native province, KwaZulu-Natal, many carrying banner from their local party associations, and the musical acts were popular Zulu stars.

Zuma, 82, arrived more than seven hours after the crowd began to slowly gather.

He received a rapturous reception and led the crowd in liberation songs.

But he spoke only in Zulu, betraying the regional limits of his support.

If there was a touch of smoke and mirrors about Zuma's event, he was only repaying Ramaphosa in kind.

The incumbent president had launched his own campaign on February 24 in Durban, capital of KwaZulu-Natal.

There was no point denying that ANC supporters in the Moses Mabhida stadium had been bussed in, especially after nine of them were killed in a road accident as they headed home to far off Mpumalanga province.

At the rally, Sean Mthembu, 30, told AFP he had been provided a small breakfast, including "a roll, one apple and a small 100-percent-pure Joy juice".

"I would have come in any case. It is not about food, it's about the struggle," he insisted.

But he added he was hoping for something more at the end of a "long day".

Others had a less principled approach.

Social media footage showed dozens of people in ANC T-shirts taking advantage of the day trip to Durban to stroll on the beach even as the event unfolded a few kilometres (miles) away.

Brian Zama, 40, an unemployed father of three who was at the stadium, said he had come aboard an organised bus even if he was not sure whether he wanted to vote ANC and thought the speeches made empty promises.

"The event is good. You can see the bikes. You can see everything is nice," he said, referring to the stunt riders in a day-long show that also featured performances from famed local singers.

"But it won't help us when we go back home," he grumbled.

Some of those bussed long distances were more enthusiastic.

On February 10 at the Durban launch rally of the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters, young militants in red T-shirts said they had risen at 4.00am to see their champion, Julius Malema, unveil his radical manifesto.

"We have not slept -- but anything to see my leader," grinned Manqoba Mdletshe after he descended from the bus that brought him 170 kilometres (100 miles) from Ulundi.

He added: "The EFF is taking good care of us with transport and I hear there is also food and drinks inside."

Perhaps the energy of the rallies will help voters engage with the campaign, despite disillusionment with the long-ruling ANC and the failure of the 51 opposition parties to breakout from their respective support bases.

But the leaders are likely to struggle to mobilise voters like 28-year-old Khayakazi, an unemployed graduate.

He came to one of the very first ANC rallies of the campaign in Soweto, drawn by the spectacle and the music.

"A lady told me to come fill the bus. They gave us T-shirts," she told AFP. "I'm not voting for the ANC, no way. I'm here just for fun."

Party supporters are lured by T-shirts and musical acts
Party supporters are lured by T-shirts and musical acts AFP
Some say the trip is part of the camaraderie of belonging to a political movement
Some say the trip is part of the camaraderie of belonging to a political movement AFP