JOHANNESBURG, Aug 30 – South African police on Tuesday fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse supporters of controversial African National Congress youth leader Julius Malema ahead of a disciplinary hearing.
Hundreds of Malema supporters threw stones and bottles at police while burning the ruling party’s flag and T-shirts bearing the face of President Jacob Zuma, AFP correspondents on the scene reported.
The 30-year-old firebrand leader is facing charges of “bringing the ANC into disrepute” and “sowing divisions” in the ruling party.
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.
Malema’s supporters had camped overnight outside the ANC headquarters in downtown Johannesburg.
“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, one of the supporters who arrived by bus from Malema’s home town in Limpopo province, which borders Zimbabwe.
Police early on Monday closed several main streets in Johannesburg city centre and cordoned off the area around Luthuli House, the ANC’s headquarters.
Malema followers ran through the area whistling, blowing vuvuzelas and carrying messages of support for their leader.
Buses were still arriving on Monday with people singing and chanting Malema slogans. Some wore shirts emblazoned with Malema’s face.
“We are behind him. He is our comrade. If he is found guilty of any wrongdoing, then there will be trouble,” said Tendani Mpshe, an unemployed 28-year-old from Tzaneen, in Limpopo province.
Police had cleared the area around the ANC headquarters by mid-morning, but around 1,000 Malema supporters had gathered in a field about 600 metres (yards) from the building.
The crowd erupted with wild applause and singing when a vehicle with a police escort believed to contain Malema drove past and into the party compound.
Monday’s violence broke out despite a call by Malema on his supporters to behave.
Malema was a key ally in Zuma’s rise to power, but has since fallen foul of the president, who came to office in 2009 and is struggling to consolidate his support in the ANC ahead of the party’s 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 as party leader with Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe – a change that would almost certainly mean Motlanthe becoming South Africa’s next president.
Malema is also in trouble with the ANC 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 for the remarks 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 some top ANC figures, including Zuma.