JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Firebrand South African politician Julius Malema proclaimed his innocence Wednesday and said the money laundering charges against him were a political plot to silence his criticism of the president.
Malema is the most prominent critic of South African President Jacob Zuma and was expelled from the ANC party earlier this year for sowing disunity.
The former youth league leader has encouraged the strikes in South Africa's mining industry, and has threatened to make the mines ungovernable.
"I have nothing to hide. I've never been part of criminal activity," Malema said to a crowd of supporters outside the court building after he made his appearance. "They have nothing against me ... They are wasting time."
Malema said he was told he would face charges of fraud, corruption and money laundering, but once in court on Wednesday was told he'd only be charged on one count of money laundering. The crowd cheered when he said the charge is not serious. Malema could face a maximum fine of 100 million rand ($1.25 million) and up to 30 years in prison. On Wednesday, Malema was given a 10,000 rand ($1,250) bail.
Malema was charged in connection with a 52 million rand ($6.5 million) government contract awarded to a company that is partly-owned by his family trust.
McIntosh Polela, spokesman for the Hawks special unit of the South African police which brought the charge against Malema, said investigations have been ongoing for a year, and charges were brought as soon as the investigation concluded. He dismissed Malema's accusations that the charges were politically motivated.
"It's a very romantic perception to suggest that we have been sent by politicians, " Polela said. "The reality is less appealing and very boring; we are only doing our work."
He said that Malema was charged for nearly 4.5 million rand that was put into the Ratananga trust to his benefit from a company that was paid for road work in the Limpopo province.
Polela confirmed that the Hawks are moving onto phase two of an investigation into Malema.
Malema used his speech outside the court to lash out at Zuma.
"You must make sure that Jacob Zuma does not become the president of the ANC," Malema said Wednesday, speaking of Zuma's bid to be reelected the party president later this year. "We must remove him as president and then charge him."
The ANC in a statement said that it "noted with concern the accusation by the ANC in Limpopo and the ANC Youth League that state agencies are used to fight political battles in the wake of charges against Malema and others."
"We reject this accusation with contempt as it is misleading and seeking to undermine the rule of law and jurisprudence of the country," it said, adding that the president and the ANC's leadership had no role in the charges against Malema.
Daniel Silke, an independent political analyst in South Africa, said that Malema is using the lesser charge to his advantage.
"The fact that he escaped on a relatively light bail amount following this morning has been seen by Malema as a victory and he has used the lighter charge sheet against him for his own political ends and to further raise his profile as an opponent against Zuma and proponent of economic transformation within South Africa," he said.
Malema had turned himself into police in Polokwane, in South Africa's northeast, early Wednesday before entering the regional court. When he entered the courtroom people there started cheering. Vigils were held through the night for him, where supporters sang songs against Zuma. Malema's next court date is Nov. 30.
In a separate case, the South African Revenue Service is also charging Malema with unpaid taxes and interest of 16 million rand ($2 million.)
Malema's four business associates appeared in court Tuesday on charges including fraud, corruption and money laundering for the 52 million rand ($6.5 million) awarded to the company On Point Engineering for road services in Limpopo province. The company was found to have lied to get the bid for the work, according to the charges. The four were granted a bail of 40,000 rand ($5,000) each.
A draft of the charge sheet said Malema benefited from the bid paid to On Point engineering and used it to fund the purchase of a farm that cost nearly 4 million rand ($500,000) and more to make a payment for a luxury car.
Last week police surrounded Malema and threatened to arrest him when he arrived at a stadium to address striking mine workers who were meeting to vote on a wage deal. Malema was forced to leave before addressing the crowd of thousands. Nearly six weeks of strikes by workers at the platinum mine saw violence that killed 46 people.
Malema said that he would travel to Rustenburg Thursday to support local miners there who are striking.