As South Africa's governing African National Congress convened a hearing on allegations of indiscipline against ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, police outside were battling with rowdy and violent protesters demanding Malema be "left alone."
The firebrand Mr. Malema is facing charges of bringing the party into disrepute through a statement advocating for regime change in Botswana, among other allegations. In a previous disciplinary hearing in May 2010, the ANC ordered Malema to take anger-management classes for remarks deemed by the ANC to be offensive.
Outside of Luthuli House, the ANC's headquarters in downtown Johannesburg, Malema's angry and youthful supporters burned South African flags as well as posters of Jacob Zuma, the country's president and leader of the ANC, and T-shirts bearing Mr. Zuma's image.
The violent protest has spawned a war of words between the ANC and members of the Youth League, an organization within the ANC founded by Nelson Mandela in 1944 as a way to push for more radical responses to South Africa's racist regime. It is unclear, however, just how much the ANC Youth League's current leadership speaks for young ANC members or for young South Africans in general. But the violence outside Luthuli House is a sign that the Youth League may be falling outside of the ANC's control.
ANC Youth League spokesman Floyd Shivambu attempted to distance ANCYL activists from the violent protests outside Luthuli House, saying such perpetrators were "chancers," or opportunists.
"The ANCYL strongly condemns and dissociates itself from the burning of ANC T-Shirts with the face of President Zuma," Mr. Shivambu said in a statement. "We reiterate our statement and call on those who are here to support the leadership to exercise maximum discipline and do so in a peaceful manner, regard, and respect to the ANC process."
Reaffirming the ANCYL's respect for the ANC's organizational discipline, Mr. Shivambu added, "The ANCYL will never be associated with unruly, disruptive elements and agents provocateurs who want to portray genuine support and solidarity gathering in a bad light; we are calling for restraint from supporters and the security service."
But ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu called the burning of President Zuma's T-shirts, party flags, and posters "totally unacceptable," "wanton acts of criminality," and "hooliganism." The scenes outside the ANC headquarters, he added, were perpetrated by an unruly mob of people claiming to be “ANC Youth League members.”
"The question we ask ourselves is whether these people who have the audacity to burn the ANC flag, posters with the face of ANC President Jacob Zuma and other leaders of the movement, launch attack on police officers, hawkers, and journalists qualify to regard themselves as members of the African National Congress or any of its leagues," Mr. Mthembu said. "The movement has been totally shocked and finds totally unacceptable the criminal acts of violence which included the throwing of rocks at motorists and members of the public. Not only is this kind of behaviour unacceptable and criminal, but it also flies in the face of all values and discipline of the ANC and all its leagues."
He said those who took 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 accompanied the gathering.
But Malema's supporters at Luthuli House say today's violence is a sign of how out of touch the current ANC leadership is with its youth wing, and with young South Africans in general. More than 36 percent of the nation's 48 million people are between the ages of 15 and 34.
"What kind of democracy is this we are seeing in the ANC today?" asks Kholwani Ngcobo, who was injured battling police with stones and empty bottles. "It never happened before during the time of Nelson Mandela, not during the tenure of Thabo Mbeki,” Mr. Ngcobo added, noting that the ANC's current leadership could lose their positions in the forthcoming ANC elective congress in the Bloemfontein.
"Malema should never be persecuted for speaking out our minds," Ngcobo said. "We need jobs, we want mines to be nationalized… We would immediately want to see the government embark on agrarian land reform to correct apartheid imbalances."
Siyobonga Mkhizhe, another Malema supporter, said Malema's case was neither about the "regime change in Botswana," nor about "nationalization of mines," but rather the thorny issue of the 2012 ANC battle for party top positions.
"Malema is not the South African government, which makes policies or amends laws, so why are they scared by his mere utterances on mines nationalization, regime change in Botswana, as well as taking away land from white imperialists without paying compensation?" asked Mr. Mkhizhe.
Lebohang Radebe of Alexandra, who graduated from the University of Johannesburg last year, said that in a democracy people were allowed to raise any subject and discuss issues without expulsion or suspension from organizations.
"We burnt President Zuma's T-shirts, posters, and ANC flags because we are beginning to see a monster in him," said Mr. Radebe. "Zuma should be reminded that he came into power because of Malema and us, the youths, and he forgets easily because of the wrong information from the communists."
Meanwhile, ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe announced that the venue for the disciplinary hearing on Julius Malema and his crew has been changed to an unknown destination outside Johannesburg, in a move believed to be made in fear of the youths' violent protests.