POLOKWANE, South Africa (AFP) – A South African court on Tuesday suspended the corruption trial of firebrand politician Julius Malema, pushing back the high-profile case of a self-appointed graft buster for nearly a year.
The 33-year-old Malema, who heads the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, faces charges of fraud, corruption, money-laundering, and racketeering linked to a $5 million government contract won five years ago.
A sea of supporters turned out on Tuesday to rally behind Malema, who won fame railing against graft in South African politics.
Police had erected barricades, with barbed razor wire, to keep them at a distance and avoid disruption of the court proceedings in the northern city of Limpopo.
Malema’s followers, some dressed in red and dancing to loud music playing out in front of the tribunal, protested his innocence and slammed the charges as politically motivated.
“The problem is that political influence has made him to be seen as if he has done corruption,” said TJ Malatjie, an electrician.
“We do feel that he is innocent.”
The trial, now scheduled for next August and expected to run for a month, brings into sharp – and ironic – focus the anti-graft crusade in South African politics.
Malema last month led chants of “Pay Back the Money” against fellow graft suspect and his political arch-foe President Jacob Zuma, plunging parliament into chaos.
He wants Zuma to cough up the $24 million of taxpayers’ money spent on “security upgrades” at his private rural home.
Malema himself, along with four business associates, is accused of lying to win a public works construction contract in his home province of Limpopo, worth 52 million rand ($4.6 million, 3.6 million euros.)
The proceeds are alleged to have been used to help buy Malema a luxury Mercedes Benz Viano and a large farm.
If convicted, he could spend a maximum of 15 years and be asked to pay a large fine.It would also automatically lose him his seat in parliament, effectively getting him out of the way of the ruling ANC in the national assembly, where he is endlessly posing troublesome questions.
A former ANC stalwart, Malema was booted out of the party for sowing indiscipline two years ago. He went on to create the Economic Freedom Fighters, which secured 25 parliamentary seats in the May elections, just months after its formation.
The former leader of the ANC’s Youth League has alleged that his prosecution is punishment for his high-profile dispute with the head of state.