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Brawl erupts in South Africa parliament as opposition party ejected

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A brutal fistfight broke out in the South African parliament Tuesday as security guards ejected opposition lawmakers in an ugly fracas that underlined heightened political tensions over Jacob Zuma's presidency.

[CAPE TOWN] A brutal fistfight broke out in the South African parliament Tuesday as security guards ejected opposition lawmakers in an ugly fracas that underlined heightened political tensions over Jacob Zuma's presidency.

About 20 members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, who were wrestled from their seats by plain-clothed guards, had refused to let Mr Zuma speak and furiously shouted down the Speaker, Baleka Mbete.

As Mr Zuma looked on impassively, the radical leftist lawmakers - dressed in their uniform of red workers' overalls - fought to try to remain in the chamber until they were physically removed through a side door.

Before the guards moved in, the EFF members, led by their firebrand "commander in chief" Julius Malema, yelled that it was the president who should be thrown out.

"He broke his oath of office. Zuma is the one who must go," they shouted.

Outside parliament, Mr Malema told reporters and cheering supporters: "Zuma will never find peace in this parliament. Every time he comes here the same thing will happen.

"These bouncers must know that if they give violence, we will respond with violence. We are not scared."

The disruption was the latest in a series of showdowns in parliament as pressure mounts on Mr Zuma to resign or be axed as president by the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

He has been urged to step down by a number of senior ANC veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle, which brought liberation icon Nelson Mandela to power in 1994.

But Mr Zuma retains widespread loyalty in the party, and ANC lawmakers have regularly rallied to his defence.

In April, they easily defeated an opposition move to impeach him.

The EFF, which was also ejected from parliament two weeks ago in similar scenes, says that it does not recognise Mr Zuma as president in the wake of two recent court cases.

In March, the country's highest court found that Mr Zuma had violated the constitution over the spending of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money on his private rural residence at Nkandla in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal.

In April another court said he should face almost 800 corruption charges relating to a multi-billion-dollar arms deal that were dropped in 2009, shortly before he became president.

A packed public gallery watched the scuffles in parliament Tuesday, with scores of supporters of the opposition Democratic Alliance wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with Mr Zuma's picture and the slogan: "Accused No 1".

Mr Zuma has been wounded by months of scandals, including his sacking of two finance ministers in four days in December which rocked the markets and saw the rand currency plummet.

Behind the debacle at the finance ministry are allegations of graft centred on a wealthy immigrant family from India, the Guptas, who are alleged to have such influence over Mr Zuma that they could decide ministerial appointments.

Mr Zuma is believed to have reinstalled a former finance minister, the widely-respected Pravin Gordhan, under pressure from senior ANC leaders concerned about the crashing economy.

Reported friction between the two men has spooked markets and investors.

The rand fell sharply on Monday following a newspaper report that Mr Gordhan might be arrested by the Hawks for allegedly setting up a "rogue" investigations unit inside the revenue collection agency.

The Hawks are a special police unit seen as under Mr Zuma's influence.

In a statement Mr Gordhan said he was surprised that he was "being investigated and could possibly be charged for something I am completely innocent of."

"I would never have thought that individuals within the very agencies of this government would now conspire to intimidate and harass me and my family," said the minister.

Political analyst Daniel Silke told AFP that Mr Gordhan is being seen as a "threat" because he has launched a war against much of the crony capitalism which emerged in South Africa in the recent years.

South Africa faces local elections in August and, if the ANC suffers a major drop in support, Mr Zuma could lose support within the party and not serve out the last three years of his final term.

AFP