JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — South African police fired stun grenades and water cannons Monday at stone-throwing supporters of Julius Malema, the ruling ANC party’s controversial youth leader who is appearing before a party disciplinary hearing.
Many of the protesters had been bussed into Johannesburg ahead of the disciplinary hearing where Malema and five other top African National Congress youth league leaders could be expelled from the party. Malema, 30, is accused of "sowing divisions" and “bringing the ANC into disrepute" by calling for Botswana's democratically elected president to be overthrown.
Malema was once a key ally of President Jacob Zuma, and helped bring him to power through the youth league's support. But he has since become an outspoken critic of Zuma, and last year was put on probation by the ANC disciplinary committee after being found guilty of criticizing the president.
Malema is under a separate investigation for fraud and corruption by the country's Public Protector — similar to the role of an ombudsman — but the probe is currently on hold due to a lack of funding.
Hundreds of Malema’s young supporters ran riot in Johannesburg ahead of Malema's scheduled appearance, throwing stones and bottles at police who had erected a barbed wire fence outside Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters in downtown Johannesburg where the closed-door disciplinary hearing was being held Monday.
Many had camped overnight outside Luthuli House after arriving by bus from Malema’s home province of Limpopo. Others were schoolchildren still dressed in their school uniforms.
Protesters set garbage on fire, burned posters and T-shirts emblazoned with Zuma’s face, and set the ruling party’s flag on fire, chanting "Zuma must go!"
Some threw stones at journalists, and at least five journalists were hit by rocks. A policeman and a news photographer had to be hospitalized, the South African Press Association reports.
Police fired rubber bullets at the crowd when a group of rioters attacked a police armored vehicle known as a nyala, while singing and dancing with sticks in their hands, SAPA says.
The ANC has since announced that it is changing the venue for the disciplinary hearings to an unspecified location outside the city.
In a statement, the ANC condemned the “totally unacceptable, wanton acts of criminality and hooliganism we witnessed today outside our headquarters.”
“It is our view that those who have taken the responsibility to mobilize the crowds to gather outside Luthuli House — the leadership of the ANC Youth League — should also take full responsibility for the violence, criminality and ill-discipline that has accompanied these crowds,” the statement said.
Malema has said he will respect the party’s ruling.