Channel NewsAsia

S Africa police fire rubber bullets in clashes at election rally

South African police on Wednesday fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at supporters of the ruling ANC party who attacked an opposition rally in Johannesburg, amid escalating tensions ahead of a crunch general election.

JOHANNESBURG: South African police on Wednesday fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at supporters of the ruling ANC party who attacked an opposition rally in Johannesburg, amid escalating tensions ahead of a crunch general election.

African National Congress activists hurled Molotov cocktails and bricks at police protecting members of the Democratic Alliance (DA) who held a march for jobs near the ANC's headquarters in the city centre.

Police responded with force and formed a human barrier between the rival groups. Four people were arrested for public violence.

"The march was fairly peaceful until our members were pelted with stones and petrol bombs" from the ANC side, said police spokeswoman Katlego Mogale.

The DA march had been planned as part of campaigning in the run-up to May 7 elections, which are expected to be the most competitive since the advent of democracy in the country in 1994.

Ahead of the march, the ANC called the planned route a reckless provocation and a declaration of "war" against the ruling party's Luthuli House headquarters.

After failing to have the march banned in court, the ANC set the stage for a showdown by bussing in thousands of its own supporters for a rival rally.

ANC supporters, many wearing t-shirts emblazoned with President Jacob Zuma's face, charged at DA supporters as they made their way across town, forcing them to retreat and eventually abandon the march.

Gripping a brick painted with the letters "DA", 20-year-old ANC supporter Kamogelo said he would not shy away from violence as the DA demonstrators approached.

"There's no toyi toyi (demonstration) without violence. There's a lot to happen here, there's a lot. We are ready for DA," he said.

"Who the hell is Zille to come and tell us how we must rule our own country? We are here to stop them," added 30-year-old Lucky Tindane.

DA leader Helen Zille called the rival ANC gathering illegal, saying she was amazed that police did not stop them from gathering.

"When we saw this whole army of ANC people undertaking an illegal march, we didn't want bloodshed and violence in the streets," Zille told her supporters after the botched rally.

"So we decided to turn away so that we didn't confront them in the middle of the street, there would have been murder and mayhem."

According to the police, no serious injuries were reported.

ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu accused the DA of being provocative, saying they were accompanied by private security guards "armed to the teeth."

"Once you come to Luthuli House, to want to force down your policies on Luthuli House, on the ANC, you are being provocative. You are being dangerously naive to think that the ANC will allow you," he said.

The DA was mainly a party of white South Africans but it has transformed itself over the past four years into a multi-racial group. The party is now increasingly seen as alternative for black voters disgruntled with the ANC.

Even before Wednesday's unrest the run-up to May's vote has been overshadowed by violent demonstrations nationwide about a lack of basic services and high unemployment.

The election -- South Africa's fifth since apartheid ended -- will be the first in which "born free" citizens can vote.

It will also be the first election since the death of peace icon Nelson Mandela, the nation's anti-apartheid hero and first democratically elected president as well as the ANC's talismanic leader.

It promises to be the sternest test yet of his party's performance after 20 years in government.

The ANC's reputation has been sullied by pervasive inequality, joblessness, cronyism and corruption.

According to a recent IPSOS poll 48 per cent of South Africans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Out of a working age population of 35 million, only 15.2 million South Africans are actually employed.

Both the ANC and the DA have made a promise to create jobs a key part of their manifestos.

The ANC is widely expected to extend its hold on government in the upcoming election, but the Democratic Alliance hopes to chisel away at its support and perhaps win control of key provinces and wards.

Tweet Photos, Videos and Update on this Story to  #cna