The chairman of the South African Catholic bishops conference has urged both sides to pull away from the rhetoric of civil war after the ruling African National Congress party was reported to have charged an opposition party leader with high treason.
“We have opened a case of high treason against Julius Malema following his reckless comments about being prepared to remove a democratically elected government using undemocratic means and force,” ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa told the South African newspaper The Citizen. “We are doing this on behalf of all South Africans to defend and protect our hard-won freedom and democracy.”
Julius Malema, who was expelled from the ANC before founding the Economic Freedom Fighters party, claimed during a TV interview on Al Jazeera that he was prepared to advocate violence if the government continues to respond to service delivery protests with violence. "We will run out of patience very soon and we will remove this government through the barrel of a gun," Malema said about the increasing number of poor districts that are seeing failures in basic services such as sanitation and water supply.
"We are deeply saddened to hear of war rhetoric by the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters‚" said Bishop Abel Gabuza of Kimberley, chairman of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference justice and peace commission. "We have seen the evil consequences of civil war in other African countries‚ including massive loss of lives‚ a refugee crisis and irreparable damage to the economy. We do not want our nation to take such a path," Gabuza added. "We therefore appeal to all political parties to refrain from actions and rhetoric that could fuel election violence and civil war."
Service delivery protests have become increasingly common and violent in recent months as anger mounts in poor communities over problems such as no running water in some areas and a lack of paved roads in others. Riot police with tear gas and stun grenades have been called in to quell many of these protests around the country.
The increase in violence by people protesting lack of service delivery and other issues "and the use of excessive force by the police" to curb the protests are deeply concerning, Bishop Gabuza added. Tensions between the ruling ANC and EFF have intensified this year as Malema increased a call for South Africa president Jacob Zuma to resign after the ANC leader was censured by the country’s constitutional court over failing to uphold the constitution after he used government money to make improvements to his own mansion.
That frustration boiled over on Sunday during an interview given by Malema on the Talk To Al Jazeera show. Asked to clarify whether Malema was "literally" saying people should take up arms against the government, Malema said, "Yeah, literally. I mean it literally. We are not scared. We are not going to have a government that disrespects us".
He added: "We are not going to accept. Part of the revolutionary duty is to fight and we are not at shame if the need arise for us to take up arms and fight. We will fight ... this regime must respond peacefully to our demands, must respond constitutionally to our demands."
While EFF are only third on seats held in the South African parliament, the far left activist party, run by Malema, 35, who is a former leader of the youth section of the ANC and widely tipped to be the next leader of the ruling party before he was expelled in 2012, has been making ground on the ANC ahead of local government elections in August.
The August polls are now being seen a direct referendum on the rule of Zuma whose rule has always been mired in controversy.
In 1999, he was acquitted of rape and an acusation of corruption, which included charges of money-laundering and racketeering, stemming from a controversial £3.5bn arms deal, was controversially dropped by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) just weeks before the elections which saw him become president.
Support for the ANC has plummeted on the back of the allegations of wrongdoing against Zuma, and a widespread sense of corrupt practices among the ruling elite. Anti-corruption campaigners claimed that up to September last year government officials had stolen more than £34bn from the South African public purse. A poll last month found that more than 50 per cent of those who voted for the ANC in the 2014 elections said that would not be voting for the ruling party again. Support for the ANC was only three percentage points higher than the main opposition Democratic Alliance party.
The Catholic Church has weighed in as the bubbling resentment among those outside of a ruling party that has never been out of power begins to boil over into threats of violence. “If the government wants to stop violent protests‚ it should be serious in its efforts to tackle the root causes‚ including the rising economic inequalities‚ youth unemployment‚ a culture of patronage and the fierce scramble for political positions especially when these positions are considered as an opportunity for self-enrichment,” Gabuza pleaded.
Meanwhile, the Congress of the People party - a minor party created by a split from the ANC - has urged the international community to monitor the upcoming elections for illegal practices. “No excuse for violence either from the side of the ruling party or any other party should arise,” said Dennis Bloem, spokesman for the party. “Every opposition party has every right to demand a totally honest and fair outcome with no shenanigans whatsoever to favour the ruling party. If the ruling party loses, it must prevent violence. No party in South Africa should resort to violence.”