President Jacob Zuma had to sneak in and out of a Limpopo church hall through the back door on Tuesday to avoid angry ANC Youth League protesters, who clashed with police at the front door.
Zuma entered the Christ Worship Church in Thohoyandou through the back door and surrounded by a heavy police guard, avoiding the booing and heckling by supporters of expelled ANCYL president Julius Malema. He was more than an hour late to deliver the Nelson Mandela memorial lecture.
At the front, defiant ANCYL members and Malema supporters chanted anti-Zuma songs. About 300 of them gathered with banners with Malema’s picture and sang “Zuma is troubling us”.
“They were an unruly group of people who started in the afternoon by blocking off the roads,” said Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi.
They became involved in a fight with ANC security officers when Zuma arrived.
“Those people are anti-Zuma and came inside the venue and started singing anti-Zuma songs. Then the ANC security inside the hall contained them and assaulted them,” said Mulaudzi, adding that the police were called in to defuse the situation.
“Five of them, who were among those singing anti-Zuma songs, were bundled into a police van and taken away from the venue. We then gave them a serious warning to refrain from causing problems in the area. They complied and were released on a warning.”
Mulaudzi was unable to say what happened to the security officials who assaulted them.
Zuma began speaking after 5pm. Violence continued outside the hall during his address.
“They continued to cause a disruption. Even when President Zuma started and was busy with the lecture, they were pelting police with stones,” said Mulaudzi.
“We had to use a water cannon to disperse them… We have now neutralised them. The situation is under control.”
Police also fired tear gas to disperse the antagonistic factions.
Provincial ANCYL chairman Rudzani Ludere, secretary Jacob Lebogo and regional chairman Jossie Buthane were kicked out of the hall for demanding “change”.
Malema supporters sang “Shawara wa re sokodisa”, while making showerhead gestures. This is a derogatory reference to Zuma’s 2005 comment about taking a shower to minimise the chance of infection after having sex with an HIV-positive woman.
Some youth league supporters were allegedly assaulted inside the venue by police and Zuma supporters. In response they tore a T-shirt, bearing Zuma’s face, off a supporter of the president.
Security at the venue was tight, and the cops didn’t take any chances. Police stopped and searched vehicles and passengers from as far away as 8km from the venue.
Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa condemned the incident.
He told SABC radio: “Those people should have known what kind of a leader Madiba was… very radical, very militant, but a very disciplined cadre of the movement, and that’s how he grew through the echelons of the movement to be where he was as he left office.”
Inside the hall, Zuma described Mandela as an exceptional leader.
He said Mandela had provided leadership at a time when the country faced potential conflict, following the killing of SACP and ANC leader Chris Hani in 1993.
“He comforted the oppressed masses. While they were in shock and in pain, he spoke as the president even before he became the president of the country,” said Zuma.
He said Mandela chose to cast his vote in 1994 in KwaZulu-Natal to honour the ANC’s founding president, John Langalibalele Dube.
“The inaugurating of Nelson Mandela… as the first democratically elected president was the most liberating moment for all peace-loving people in South Africa, Africa and the world,” said Zuma.
He said Mandela was an exceptional leader for the ANC and SA.
“He was truly the president South Africa needed during the fragile period. He worked tirelessly to change South Africa for the better,” said Zuma.
He likened Mandela to a “magnet” that attracted people “through persuasion”.
“Inside our country, even those who… fought tooth and nail to keep South Africa a racist, pariah state, now claim Nelson Mandela as their own,” said Zuma.