South African ANC renegade Julius Malema was charged with money laundering on Wednesday in a high profile corruption case his supporters say is part of a political plot to silence President Jacob Zuma's most vocal critic.
The trial of Malema, who has backed wildcat miners' strikes and has been pushing for nationalisation of the mines, is one of the biggest since apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) took power in 1994.
Prosecutors at the provincial magistrates' court in Polokwane, 350 km (220 miles) north of Johannesburg, said Malema had "improperly received" 4.2 million rand ($514,000) in a conspiracy involving government tenders.
Malema scoffed at the charges after being released on bail of 10,000 rand.
"I'm unshaken... I'll continue with the struggle for economic freedom," he told supporters, adding he would visit a platinum mine run by Impala on Thursday to press for a wage strike there.
Scores of police deployed razor wire to block more than 1,000 Malema supporters from approaching the court compound in Polokwane, the capital of the 31-year-old's native Limpopo province.
For his ten minute hearing, Malema ditched his trademark Che Guevara-style black beret and white t-shirt for a grey suit and white shirt. He emerged from the court smiling and waving and shook hands with his chanting supporters.
Ousted as leader of the ANC Youth League in April for ill-discipline, Malema has returned from the political wilderness with a vengeance in the past several weeks, stepping up public criticism against Zuma and the ANC hierarchy.
He had been under investigation for months for suspected corruption, fraud and money laundering relating to government contracts his political allies secured in Limpopo - a province where the Treasury says hundreds of millions of dollars go missing each year due to suspected graft.
His penchant for luxury cars, flashy Swiss watches and champagne parties has also attracted the attention of South Africa's Revenue Service, which said at the weekend he owed nearly $2 million in unpaid taxes.
No charges for fraud or corruption were brought on Wednesday.
SUPPORTERS DENOUNCE "ABUSE OF POWER"
Malema has blamed Zuma's government for police shooting dead 34 striking platinum miners on Aug. 16 at Lonmin's Marikana mine in the deadliest security incident since the end of apartheid.
Malema's backers say the charges are politically motivated.
"This case is an abuse of power by Zuma against Malema," supporter Sonett Masemola told Reuters outside the court.
His supporters held a raucous vigil on Tuesday night, and many said he was being brought to trial to sideline him ahead of an ANC meeting in December at which Zuma is seeking re-election as head of the dominant party in South Africa.
"He gets more support than President Zuma because he is more in touch with the people and more intelligent," said Luterdo Mothurwane, dressed in ANC Youth League garb.
Zuma's "man of the people" image took a knock during the government's sluggish response to the Marikana shootings, with Malema emerging as the head of an "Anyone But Zuma" campaign seeking to remove the president in December.
Malema used the mine shooting to pillory Zuma, saying the polygamous president spent more time dealing with his personal life than the poverty and inequality that blights Africa's biggest economy 18 years after the end of white-minority rule.
He has also revived calls for the state to take over the mines, a sector that accounts for about 6 percent of GDP. The government has dismissed the idea, saying it would bankrupt the country.