PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma has been criticised for not addressing the official Youth Day rally in Port Elizabeth, as he chose to go to a Group of 20 meeting in Mexico instead.

His late decision to pull out of the youth rally suggested Mr Zuma took a deliberate action to side-step a hostile crowd that was expected to jeer him. The crowd went on to jeer his replacement.

Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane replaced Mr Zuma at the event at the Wolfson Stadium in Zwide township. He was jeered by youths, who sang songs in support of Julius Malema, the expelled former leader of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League.

Police had to intervene to calm down another crowd that had been burning tyres and barricading roads near the stadium.

Port Elizabeth has experienced an increase in service-delivery protests recently. The residents, and others in the ANC, were expected to jeer Mr Zuma had he attended.

The ANC in Nelson Mandela Bay, the region that includes Port Elizabeth, is run by a group of leaders linked to those who are campaigning to prevent Mr Zuma from being elected to a second term as head of the party.

Political analyst Ralph Mathekga said Mr Zuma "had no choice but to avoid" the rally because it was clear in the buildup to the event that the crowd was going to be hostile.

He said some of the events Mr Zuma had addressed recently - including a lecture in Johannesburg on Friday - were managed so that ANC Youth League members were not invited or allowed in. Young ANC members heckled Mr Zuma during a lecture in Cape Town in February.

Mr Zuma could expect a hostile crowd when he addressed an ANC centenary rally in Limpopo next month, said Mr Mathekga.

Limpopo - Mr Malema's home province - is one of the areas where the anti-Zuma sentiment is strong.

Democratic Alliance youth chairwoman Mbali Ntuli said it was a "slap in the face of young people" that Mr Zuma pulled out of attending Saturday's rally.

"By failing to remain in SA on Youth Day, one of the most important days in South African history, President Zuma has demonstrated once again that he has no interest in engaging the youth," said Ms Ntuli.

As the ANC's Mangaung elections draw near, Mr Zuma cannot afford to be jeered as that would dent the image of a confident and secure party leader who is popular on the ground. With Sapa

mkokelis@bdfm.co.za