By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African police fired rubber bullets on Tuesday to disperse a protest march organised by a firebrand new political party and arrested four people, highlighting tensions building ahead of general elections next year.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), headed by Julius Malema, the expelled "bad boy" of the ruling African National Congress, said in a statement an unspecified number of its members were injured in the march near the main government buildings in the capital Pretoria.
It also said four of its leaders had been arrested.
Police confirmed the incident, saying the march was illegal because no permission had been granted in advance.
"People planned to march and the police intervened because it was illegal and then the protesters became violent and rubber bullets were fired. Four suspects were arrested," police spokesman Tsekiso Mofokeng told Reuters.
EFF, whose members wear red berets, said it was marching to support people who faced eviction from a squatter camp.
"It is evident that South Africa is turning into a police state and community struggles will continue to be met with police brutality and oppression," EFF said in its statement.
The party, which advocates nationalisation of South Africa's mines and banks and the seizure of white-owned land for redistribution to poor blacks, is trying to appeal to impoverished black voters who have seen little improvement to their living standards since apartheid ended two decades ago.
Analysts don't see the EFF posing a serious challenge to the ANC, which has been dominant since the end of apartheid, but it may tap a deep well of resentment and grab some votes among the poor and unemployed in a country with glaring income disparities and a jobless rate of over 25 percent.
The fiery Malema remains one of the country's most recognisable politicians and EFF activists are becoming increasingly visible on recruiting drives in poor communities.
Thrown out by the ANC as a troublemaker last year, Malema has seemed unfazed by charges of racketeering that could still see him jailed over murky state tender deals.