Supporters of ANC youth leader clash with police
South African police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse hundreds of supporters of controversial ANC youth leader Julius Malema on Tuesday as he faced a party disciplinary panel.
While senior members of the African National Congress considered whether to suspend or even expel the influential firebrand, his followers staged a show of strength outside its headquarters by hurling stones and bottles at police.
They even set fire to the ANC's flag and T-shirts bearing the face of President Jacob Zuma, according to AFP correspondents at the scene.
The pair were once allies but Malema is being tried on charges of bringing the ANC into disrepute and sowing divisions in the ruling party after reports linking him to a movement to oust Zuma as party leader.
Malema, who is charged along with five other youth league officials, could be expelled from the ANC at the closed-door hearing, after being found guilty of criticising Zuma by the party's disciplinary committee last year.
On the eve of the hearing, Malema insisted there was no bad blood between himself and Zuma but his supporters who camped overnight outside Luthuli House in downtown Johannesburg struck a more defiant note.
"We are here to support our hero. Malema speaks for us. If he is being charged, then charge all of us," said Thabang Mokoena, 29, who arrived by bus from Malema's hometown in Limpopo province, which borders Zimbabwe.
Despite the violence, the party's secretary general Gwede Mantashe told reporters there would be halt to proceedings.
"We are not intimidated. It is not disrupting the process inside," he said.
Police early Monday closed several main streets and cordoned off the area around Luthuli House.
Malema followers ran through the area whistling, blowing vuvuzelas and carrying messages of support for their leader.
Although the situation had calmed by midday, Malema's supporters were singing the controversial anti-apartheid struggle song 'dubula ibhunu' whose chorus loosely translates as "shoot the white farmer".
The violence also drew a formal condemnation from the youth league, an organisation founded by the anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela and a key component of the ANC's electoral college.
"The ANCYL will never be associated with unruly, disruptive elements and agents provocateurs who want to portray genuine support and solidarity gathering in a bad light," said the league in a statement. "We are calling for restraint from supporters and the security service."
The violence was also condemned by the ANC's labour allies, the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
"The burning of symbols of the ANC on T-shirts ... demonstrates their utter contempt for the organisation they claim to be members of, and will alienate any support they may already have within the movement," said COSATU.
Malema was a key ally in Zuma's rise to power and the toppling of his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, but has since fallen foul of the president.
Zuma, who became South Africa's third black president in 2009 after earlier ousting Mbeki from the helm of the ANC, is struggling to consolidate his support in the party ahead of its elective conference next year.
Zuma is hoping to be re-elected as party leader which will allow him to stand for second term as president in elections in 2014.
However the "Young Lions", as the youth wing is called, would rather see him replaced by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe -- a change that would almost certainly mean Motlanthe becoming South Africa's next president.
Malema is also in trouble over his call last month for regime change in neighbouring Botswana, which he said had a "puppet government" that was "in full cooperation with imperialists."
He later apologised after a public rebuke from the ANC leadership.
The youth leader has become one of South Africa's most controversial figures since being elected president of the youth league in 2008.
With his calls to nationalise the country's mines and redistribute wealth to impoverished blacks, he has become a galvanising figure for millions of black youth, who face a 25-percent unemployment rate and an economy still troubled by striking inequalities 17 years after the end of apartheid.
But his often vehement rhetoric has constantly made him a thorn in the side of several top ANC figures, including Zuma.
© 2011 AFP