By Dinky Mkhize
PRETORIA (Reuters) - Protesters burned buses and barricaded roads in South Africa's capital on Tuesday in an escalating dispute over the ruling party's mayoral candidate for local elections in August.
The vote is expected to be closely fought and will pose a major test for the African National Congress (ANC) as it looks ahead to a 2019 presidential election in the face of a strong challenge from the opposition and an economic slowdown.
Disturbances erupted on Monday night as residents of Pretoria's impoverished townships set vehicles and tyres on fire to block roads after the ANC's national leadership named a mayoral candidate not nominated by its regional branches.
Rioters looted shops, torched vehicles and placed rocks and other debris across roads on Wednesday, snarling traffic and business in the capital of Africa's most industrialized country.
The dispute flared at the weekend after an ANC member was shot dead on Sunday as party factions met to decide on a candidate for mayor of Pretoria's Tshwane municipality.
The ANC leadership then named senior party member and former cabinet minister Thoko Didiza as its candidate for Tshwane, overriding regional branch members.
Tshwane residents want the incumbent mayor, Kgosientso Ramokgopa, to be allowed to run on the ANC ticket, TV station eNCA reported, but at a town hall meeting with some residents, Ramokgopa backed Didiza's selection and called for calm.
ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe said its members were not behind the violence, which he condemned as "thuggery".
Speaking to reporters, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa urged Tshwane residents to shun tribalism and accept Didiza even though she does not originally hail from the area. Didiza comes from KwaZulu Natal province.
Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told a media gathering that the military would not be deployed yet but warned a crackdown might be needed to restore peace in Pretoria's streets. "We are not going to allow anarchy to take over."
The ANC has been in power since the end of white-minority rule in 1994 but critics say it is losing its touch in areas - including Pretoria - where it was once unassailable.
Record unemployment and a looming recession have exacerbated discontent with President Jacob Zuma's leadership since the Constitutional Court ruled he had violated his oath of office by refusing to refund to the state some of the 240 million rand ($16.25 million) spent on refurbishing his private residence.
"The Tshwane explosion is an indication of the growing disconnect between the ANC and its own members," independent political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi said.
($1 = 14.7665 rand)
(Additional reporting by Mfuneko Toyana in Johannesburg; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Mark Heinrich)