Young South Africans brought their frustration over poverty and joblessness to the streets Thursday, responding to a call by the tough-talking youth leader of the governing African National Congress who has clashed with older party leaders over economic policy.
"Shoot the boer!" the crowd of thousands sang, a black liberation war-era chant that South Africa's highest court has ruled is racist and that the ANC ordered youth leader Julius Malema and his followers to stop singing. "Boer," farmer in the language of Dutch-descended South Africans, is sometimes used for all whites.
Malema led the crowd in chants of "Down with white monopoly capital!" as they approached the Chamber of Mines headquarters. Malema has been demanding nationalization of the country's lucrative mines, though the ANC-led government has said it has no intention to do so.
A banner at the mining headquarters declared "We agree with you that unemployment is too high, poverty is too high, inequality is too high."
Police and ANC Youth League marshals kept a close watch as the crowd of about 5,000 marched in 80-degree (27-degree Celsius) heat with dance music blaring from speakers.
Protester Tsholofelo Stephina Bester said the ANC must act faster to help the poor. Bester said that when she graduated from high school 10 years ago, she couldn't afford further studies to pursue her dream of becoming a social worker. She has been looking for steady work since. For the last two years, she has volunteered as an AIDS counselor, earning "pocket money" of 1,500 rand (about $190) a month. She and her 7-year-old daughter get by on that and welfare assistance.
"I want them not to promise without delivering," she said of ANC leaders. "I want them to deliver."
A quarter of the South African work force was unemployed even before the worldwide slowdown led to hundreds of thousands of lost jobs here. Unemployment among young people is even higher than the national average.
Malema took the lead in the "economic freedom march" that will go to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, then on foot and by bus about 40 miles (60 kilometers) north to Pretoria, the seat of government. After an overnight vigil in a Pretoria sports stadium, Malema will present government officials with his demands, which include jobs, housing and other help for the poor, and nationalizing the mines.
ANC leaders say talk about nationalizing mines undermines investor confidence, while Malema calls them "cowards," accusing them of being afraid to take on powerful mine bosses. Malema also says whites remain privileged 17 years after the end of apartheid, and that big business largely remains in white hands.
Thursday's protest may be aimed as much at influencing ANC economic policy as showing older leaders Malema cannot be ignored. Next year, President Jacob Zuma faces an internal party leadership vote that could also determine who will be South Africa's next president. Malema helped put Zuma in power after turning against predecessor Thabo Mbeki.
The main ANC grudgingly accepted Malema's plans to march after asking Malema to tone down his anti-government rhetoric. He also pledged the march would be peaceful.
In August, pro-Malema demonstrators burned ANC flags and ran through the streets of downtown Johannesburg holding up flaming T-shirts bearing the image of President Zuma. That protest was sparked by the start of a disciplinary hearing for Malema and five other youth league officers accused of bringing the ANC into disrepute with calls for the ouster of the democratic government of neighboring Botswana. They face expulsion or suspension from the party in a process that has not yet concluded.
In a speech to parliament earlier this week, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said creating jobs, reducing poverty, building infrastructure and expanding the economy would be the work of many decades. In what many analysts said was a veiled reference to Malema's calls for nationalization, Gordhan said South Africa's mining industry, a key sector of the country's economy, had not benefited from a global boom in mineral prices, in part because of "uncertainty in the regulatory environment."
"Anger is not enough," Gordhan said. "We have to act, we have to be bold and farsighted in our resolve to move ahead with the reforms that will build a better future not just for ourselves but for generations to come."