Johannesburg’s city centre was chaotic Tuesday as the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party began a disciplinary hearing against youth league’s president, Julius Malema.
Thousands of angry youths demonstrated in the streets of Johannesburg and hurled stones at police in support of the youth leader.
The ugly demonstration of force was the latest escalation in a showdown between President Jacob Zuma and his rival Malema.
Western and right wing South African media tried to label the demonstrators as a mob.
The ANC has hauled its youth leader to a disciplinary hearing on charges of “sowing divisions” in the party after he called for the ouster of the “puppet government in Botswana”.
But as the hearing began on Tuesday, thousands of Malema supporters took to the streets, pushing police who were protecting the ANC headquarters in downtown Johannesburg, where the hearing was taking place.
They burned ANC flags and shirts with President Zuma’s image. Others carried anti-Zuma placards and sang songs denouncing the President as a rapist – alluding to rape charges of which he was acquitted in 2006.
The police responded with rubber bullets, stun grenades, water cannons and tear gas. Several police officers and journalists were injured by bricks and bottles thrown by the demonstrators.
The ANC blamed the leadership of its Youth League for what it terms as “the wanton acts of criminality and hooliganism.”
It announced that the disciplinary hearing would be shifted to an undisclosed location outside the city to prevent further clashes.
Malema, wearing a revolutionary-style black beret, eventually emerged onto the streets to tell the crowd to calm down.
There is mounting speculation that he could be suspended or expelled from the ANC – a move that would escalate the current disaffection of the youths who support Malema, and create further divisions in the liberation party.
In the past two years, Malema has increasingly challenged the ANC leadership, especially by campaigning for the nationalization of South Africa’s mining industry – a policy that ANC cabinet ministers have either dodged or remained mum on.
Malema has criticised white farmers as “criminals” and called for the ouster of the President of Botswana, Ian Seretse Khama, who he labelled a western puppet.
Malema is too powerful to ignore. He faced disciplinary hearings by the ANC in 2010, yet emerged unscathed and still in command of the Youth League.