By Jon Herskovitz
POLOKWANE, South Africa (Reuters) - South African ANC renegade Julius Malema reported to police on Wednesday ahead of a court hearing on corruption charges that his supporters say are part of a political plot to silence the fierce critic of President Jacob Zuma.
Scores of police deployed razor wire to block more than 1,000 Malema supporters from entering the police station and the court in Polokwane, 350 km (220 miles) north of Johannesburg. Polokwane is the provincial capital of Malema's native Limpopo.
Malema, who has backed ongoing wildcat miners' strikes and advocates nationalization of the mines, was due to appear on Wednesday in the first stage of what is seen as one of the biggest trials in South Africa since apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) took power in 1994.
The hearing is expected to last only a few minutes with prosecutors reading out the charges against Malema. The court is then likely to release him on bail.
Malema, ousted as leader of the ANC Youth League in April for ill-discipline, has returned from the political wilderness with a vengeance in the past several weeks, stepping up public criticism against Zuma and the ANC hierarchy.
The ANC rebel had been under investigation for months for suspected corruption, fraud and money laundering relating to government contracts his political allies secured in Limpopo - a province where the National Treasury says hundreds of millions of dollars go missing each year due to suspected graft.
Malema, with a penchant for luxury cars, flashy Swiss watches and champagne parties, has also been given a bill for nearly $2 million for unpaid taxes, the South African Revenue Service said.
SUPPORTERS DENOUNCE "ABUSE OF POWER"
Malema has blamed Zuma's government for police shooting dead 34 striking platinum miners on August 16 at Marikana mine in the deadliest security incident since the end of apartheid.
"This case is an abuse of power by Zuma against Malema," one of his protesting supporters outside the court building in Polokwane, Sonett Masemola, told Reuters.
Malema's backers held a raucous vigil of song and dance on Tuesday night. Many said he was being brought to trial to sideline him ahead of an ANC leadership vote in December where Zuma is seeking re-election as head of the dominant party in South Africa.
"He gets more support than President Zuma because he is more in touch with the people and more intelligent," said Luterdo Mothurwane, dressed in ANC Youth League garb.
Zuma, who faces criticism for weak leadership, saw his image as a man of the people dented by his sluggish response to the August 16 mine shootings. The rise of Malema has strengthened the hand of opponents seeking to oust Zuma in December.
Malema used the mine shooting to launch populist attacks on the president, saying he is paying more attention to his personal life than the poverty and economic inequality that has created a massive underclass in Africa's biggest economy.
He has revived calls for the state to take over a mining industry that accounts for about 6 percent of GDP. The government said mine nationalization would bankrupt the country.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)