South African police fire tear gas in clashes with Malema followers

South African police fired tear gas and water cannon at hundreds of rock-throwing supporters of the controversial youth leader of the African National Congress (ANC) yesterday as he faced possible suspension from the party over his outspoken demands that embarrassed its leadership.

Julius Malema and five other youth league leaders face a disciplinary hearing where they are accused of "sowing divisions" in the party and of bringing it into disrepute after pushing for the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Botswana. Their hearings began yesterday at the ANC's Luthuli House headquarters in Johannesburg and are due to continue all week.

Since supporting President Jacob Zuma's rise to the head of the ANC in 2007 and rallying South African youth to vote for the party in 2009, Mr Malema has become an increasingly divisive figure. To the horror of investors, he has called for the nationalisation of South African mines and said whites should be treated as "criminals" for stealing land from black people.

But the protesters yesterday blamed Mr Zuma and the ANC's secretary-general Gwede Mantashe for turning against Mr Malema. Some of the placards read: "Zuma u'r time 2 leave da office has past" and "JZ and Gwede the ANC is not your private entity".

While Mr Malema was inside the hearing, his supporters pelted police with rocks, bricks and bottles and tried to force their way through a cordon of razor wire around the headquarters.

They attacked a police armoured vehicle, chanted "Malema for president" and burnt ANC flags and T-shirts featuring Mr Zuma's face. The police responded with tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets before Mr Malema emerged to a rapturous reception and called for restraint.

Mr Malema has become known for his hostility towards journalists, including a BBC reporter, Jonah Fisher, whom he called "a bloody agent" in a press conference last year. Mr Malema was taken to court for repeatedly singing an apartheid-era protest song containing the words "shoot the Boer".

An ANC disciplinary committee last year fined him after ruling he had undermined Mr Zuma. It ruled his membership would be suspended if he was found guilty of dividing the party again within two years. In tandem with the charges brought against Mr Malema at the ANC disciplinary hearings, his lavish lifestyle has been exposed in media coverage laden with leaked details of alleged corrupt dealings.