JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Hundreds of young black South Africans marched to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange on Thursday after delivering a petition to the Chamber of Mines demanding big changes to an economy still controlled by the white minority.
Led by African National Congress (ANC) Youth League leader Julius Malema, the marchers want President Jacob Zuma’s government to do more to tackle the chronic unemployment blighting the continent’s biggest economy.
Their proposed solutions include nationalisation of the mines in the world’s biggest platinum producer, and the seizure of white-owned farms — an echo of the disastrous economic policies of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
Police were out in numbers and cordoned off streets as the crowd of 2,000 protesters moved to the stock exchange in upmarket Sandton financial district.
In the petition handed to Bheki Sibiya, the black chief executive of the mining industry body, the Youth League demanded the state take 60 percent control of the mines and that all mineral processing plants be situated close to the mines.
“The CEO is the face of white capital but he is a brother,” Malema said, addressing marchers from the back of a truck. “He is one of our own but works for the wrong people.”
Sibiya acknowledged the poverty, unemployment and inequality that persists 17 years after the end of apartheid, and promised to respond to the petition within five days.
“Comrades, I will engage with all members of the Chamber of Mines and they will receive the letter,” he told the crowd.
In a statement, the Chamber of Mines said it did not agree with the Youth League proposals, in particular nationalisation.
“This will severely damage the economic performance of the country and thus leave the population as a whole in a much worst state than before,” the statement said.
About 25 percent of South Africans are without work, and a study by the Institute of Race Relations has said half of 25-to-34-year-olds had little chance of ever finding employment.
“We are here because the youth is marginalised by unemployment,” said 29-year-old Youth League official Given Valashiya.
“Unemployment is high, so it is important to nationalise the means of production in South Africa as well as expropriate the land. We want to remind our president about these issues.”
Some businesses around the Chamber of Mines in downtown Johannesburg and the stock exchange told employees to stay home and tightened security in case the protest turns violent.
Malema rose to prominence when he campaigned for Zuma’s election in 2007 but he has since fallen out of favour with South Africa’s leader, whose government has ignored his radical calls for mine nationalisation and farm seizures.
Critics argue that he is using the march to divert attention from an ANC disciplinary hearing that could see him expelled from the party.
The growing gap between South Africa’s haves and have-nots has created political space for Malema, whose fearless challenges to everybody from Zuma to “white capitalists” has endeared him to the millions of impoverished blacks.
From the stock exchange, the protest will head to Pretoria, where another petition will be handed to Zuma on Friday.