JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Bricks flew as South Africa's opposition party held a protest march in downtown Johannesburg Wednesday ahead of general elections on May 7.
South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress, or ANC, is a master of political demonstrations, a legacy of its role as the main protest movement against white minority rule two decades ago. On Wednesday, the opposition Democratic Alliance party challenged the ANC's prowess by staging a demonstration.
It was an edgy affair, marred by brick-throwing by ruling party members who objected to the opposition's plan to march near their headquarters. Hanging over the episode was the specter of a 1994 incident, ahead of South Africa's first all-race vote, in which guards at the party headquarters — then based in a different building — fired on marchers from a rival political group, killing eight.
This time, there were a few scenes reminiscent of the unrest that defined South Africa for so many years under apartheid. Police tossed stun grenades and fired rubber bullets to disperse ANC supporters who tried to disrupt the march by several thousand members of the Democratic Alliance. Someone lobbed a gasoline bomb. One man running next to a ruling party supporter was seen with a pistol.
But fears of greater violence were not realized, a hopeful sign in a nation that has enjoyed relatively peaceful elections since 1994 despite high crime and other problems. Analysts predict the African National Congress will win the upcoming election, though possibly with a smaller majority because of unhappiness with its mixed record as the ruling party since apartheid.
Marchers from the Democratic Alliance ran from the scene when protesters hurled bricks at them, and leader Helen Zille accused the ruling party of being "above the law" as a result of alleged inaction by the police. Critics said the march was wasteful because state money spent on security for demonstrators could have gone to crime-fighting and other services.
The roots of the opposition party, which controls one of South Africa's nine provinces, lie in white liberal activism against apartheid. Its vote share increased to nearly 17 percent in the 2009 election, compared to a slight dip to just under two-thirds for the ruling party. Opposition marchers accused the ruling party of failing to create jobs to alleviate the 25 percent official unemployment rate.
The Democratic Alliance was trying to "exercise some command of that marching mode, public protest mode, which has been something of a monopoly of the ANC," said professor Daryl Glaser, head of the political studies department at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
He said the party should have chosen a public building or institution as a target for its protest, rather than announcing it would march to Luthuli House, the ruling party headquarters. Glaser noted, though, that the African National Congress had shown "authoritarian instincts" and there was "some value in pushing and testing the extent of its tolerance."
Before the march, the ruling party said its opponents had hired armed security guards for the march, which it characterized as a desperate attempt to grab the political limelight.
"They are taking us back to an era when violence and conflict defined our political environment," it said in a statement.
Zille said the ruling party was the aggressor.
On March 28, 1994, security guards opened fire on Zulu marchers from the rival Inkatha party as they approached the African National Congress headquarters, then known as Shell House. Several years later, a judge cleared the ANC of direct responsibility for the killings.