JOHANNESBURG, (Reuters) – South African police used stun grenades and water cannon yesterday to disperse thousands of supporters of outspoken ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema who was facing a party disciplinary hearing that could derail his political career.
Scores of Malema’s supporters hurled rocks and beer bottles at police and burned African National Congress flags and posters of President Jacob Zuma outside the ruling party’s headquarters in central Johannesburg.
The hearing is a high-stakes gamble for both Zuma and Malema. The firebrand youth leader, seen as a potential future leader, faces possible suspension from the party. But if he is exonerated, Zuma could be fighting for political survival.
Malema, who has no direct policy-making power but is one of the ANC’s most popular politicians, has won admiration among millions of poor South Africans and alarmed investors with his calls to nationalise the mines and seize white-owned farmland.
The turmoil, which shuttered businesses and left downtown Johannesburg streets littered with broken glass and rocks, prompted the ANC to move the week-long hearings of Malema, 30, and five other top youth league officials to a secret location outside the city.
“We are not intimidated. If this is an attempt to intimidate, it is not working,” ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe said, blaming the Youth League for the violence. “Whoever brought this crowd here will have to take responsibility.”
The violence, in which at least one policeman and several journalists were wounded, was the worst near the headquarters of South Africa’s ruling party since apartheid ended in 1994, Mantashe said.
He later said the hearings would be moved so as not to disrupt the lives of people working in the city.
Malema, wearing a black T-shirt and beret, told supporters during a break in his hearing that they should refrain from violence, respect the ANC leadership and not burn party flags. “We must exercise restraint,” Malema said.
He told supporters journalists should not be harmed as they were not the enemy. “You must know who is the enemy,” Malema said before he was drowned out by supporters shouting: “Zuma is the enemy”.
If found guilty of sowing discord in party ranks — in Malema’s second disciplinary hearing in about a year — he could be suspended from the party for several years.
Expulsion would silence his calls for nationalisation of the mining sector, to the relief of investors, but would anger his legions of supporters.
Zuma hopes to be re-elected as ANC leader at a party meeting in late 2012 – at which nationalisation of the mines will be examined – and sidelining Malema could help him win another term by neutralising rivals who have courted Malema’s support.
Police contained the several thousand protesters, including children in school uniforms, behind razor wire barricades near the ANC building. They dispersed after Malema’s speech.
“KILL FOR MALEMA”
At least one police officer was hit by a brick, a police spokesman said, and the domestic eNEWS channel said one of its television crews was attacked. Two photographers were also attacked with rocks, the SAPA news agency reported.
The protesters earlier tried to break through the police barricades towards the ANC building.