South Africa’s ruling African National Congress has backed down in a power struggle with the controversial head of the party’s youth wing, reversing a decision to move a disciplinary hearing to a secret location following Tuesday’s violent scenes.
Officials said on Tuesday night that the hearing, which could see Julius Malema suspended from the ANC, would be moved to an undisclosed location after the first day saw battles outside the ANC headquarters between riot police and supporters of Malema, a regular irritant to South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma.
The clashes saw police use water cannon and stun grenades against pro-Malema crowds, who burned ANC flags and posters of Zuma.
However, a party spokesman said later that Wednesday’s session would in fact still be held at the ANC building. He said the hearing could yet be moved if there was more trouble. He did not explain the reason for the change, although local reports said Malema and his lawyers had objected to the original decision.
Addressing a crowd in central Johannesburg late on Tuesday, Malema urged supporters not to throw stones at police or journalists. “The police is not your enemy. These are the people employed to protect you,” South Africa’s Mail and Guardian newspaper quoted him as saying. “You must know who is the enemy,” which prompted the crowd to chant, “Zuma! Zuma!”
Malema, 30, has no formal policy making power in the party but is very influential, with a committed powerbase. He has angered Zuma and other leading ANC members by agitating for the nationalisation of South Africa’s hugely valuable mining industry, a move critics say would bring instant economic isolation for the country.
His lavish lifestyle and fondness for contentious statements, for example a speech saying white South Africans should be treated as “criminals” for stealing land, has also proved divisive.
Malema was disciplined by the party last year for undermining Zuma and warned that a repeat offence within two years could see him suspended. The current disciplinary hearing, involving Malema and five youth wing members, followed a youth wing statement calling for the overthrow of the democratically elected government of neighbouring Botswana.
It is a high-risk strategy for both sides. If Malema is suspended he could lose his political powerbase. However, if Zuma is forced to back down, it could greatly damage his standing in the party, which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994.
Early reports said that while police were surrounding the ANC headquarters on Wednesday morning there were no protesters as yet.