Violent protests today by supporters of South Africa's firebrand youth leader are the latest political salvo in a power struggle that could determine the future of South Africa's president and the man who helped catapult him to power, youth league chief Julius Malema.
Demonstrators burned flags of the ruling African National Congress and ran through the streets of downtown Johannesburg holding up flaming T-shirts bearing the image of President Jacob Zuma.
"Zuma must go!" they chanted.
When the protesters began lobbing stones and bottles, police detonated stun grenades and turned water cannons on the crowd of thousands. Later, they fired rubber bullets to get protesters off the roof of an armoured car.
The focus for today's demonstration was the start of a disciplinary hearing for Malema and five other youth league officers accused of bringing the ANC into disrepute with their calls for the ouster of the democratic government of neighbouring Botswana. They face expulsion or suspension from the party.
Analysts say the hearing is a pretext to confront the growing power of Malema, who has mobilised disillusioned and unemployed youth with demands that the government nationalise the wealthy mining sector and appropriate white-owned farm land for black peasants.
Malema, 30, says that is the only way to address growing inequality and poverty in Africa's richest nation and better distribute wealth that remains firmly entrenched in the minority white community and among a few thousand blacks who have grown wealthy mainly off government contracts.
Malema indicated yesterday that he too believed that was the real issue, telling reporters that "This [disciplinary hearing] does not delay our economic struggle. We see this as a setback for the revolution we are pursuing. We will continue to push for economic freedom in our lifetime."
Today, he emerged from the hearing to appeal to thousands of cheering militants for a peaceful protest and to chastise them for burning the party flag and T-shirts. He urged them to respect the ANC and its leaders.
"You are here because you love the ANC. We must exercise restraint," he said. "We cannot burn ourselves."
The cheers turned to a roar when Malema insisted that the ANC youth league speaks "for the poorest of the poor" and will pursue a "radical and militant" revolution that also must be peaceful.
The disciplinary hearing that began today and could last for days is a response to the youth league's announcement last month that it would send a committee to work with opposition parties in Botswana against democratically elected President Ian Khama. They accused Khama of cooperating with "imperialists" and undermining "the African agenda" in Libya's revolution.
Malema said the youth league would help bring "regime change" in Botswana.
This embarrassed Zuma and other party officials who have been leading African condemnation of the United States, Britain and France for allegedly abusing a UN resolution to effect regime change in Libya.
The support of Malema and his youth league was instrumental in getting Zuma elected party president in December 2007 and unceremoniously ousting former President Thabo Mbeki.
Protesting youth leaguers today threatened to do the same to Zuma at the 2012 ANC congress.
"In 2012 we are voting Mbalula," they chanted, referring to former youth league president and current Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula. Whoever wins the party presidency gets to run for president. The ANC remains unchallenged politically in the country.
Party leaders have condemned Malema in the past for his divisive tactics, including the singing of a racist song calling for people to "kill the boer," or white farmer.
In May, the party disciplinary committee fined Malema and ordered him to apologise for sowing discord in the party and undermining Zuma's authority.
Critics accuse Malema of being an opportunist. They point to the massive mansion he is building in Johannesburg's luxury Sandton suburb and allegations of corruption. His supporters say those charges are trumped up.
The police and public prosecutor announced this month that they are undertaking a formal investigation into Malema's business dealings.
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