South Africans came out in their tens of thousands on Friday to call for President Jacob Zuma to be removed from office.
The largely peaceful anti-Zuma protests organised by civil society groups, religious orders, unions and political parties took place in all of South Africa’s major cities and towns, on an unprecedented scale since the fight against apartheid during the 1980s.
The marches were sparked by the African National Congress (ANC) leader’s decision to reshuffle his cabinet late on March 30; an undertaking that involved the sacking of six ministers. Those fired included finance minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy.
The Cabinet reshuffle has been fingered as having triggered the downgrading of South Africa’s economy to junk status by Standard and Poors rating agency on Monday. A second agency, Fitch Ratings, downgraded South Africa to just above junk status on Friday.
Scale of Protest
Speaking at a press briefing in Pretoria, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula announced that approximately 60 000 people took part in the protests across the country calling for President Jacob Zuma to step down. She said the figure was a tentative estimate as reports on the turnout were still being expected.
Flanked by Communications Minister Ayanda Dlodlo and State Security Minister David Mahlobo, the defence minister gave an update on the protests:
“In Pretoria, we had 15000, Johannesburg plus minus 10 000, Pietermaritzburg plus minus 500, Durban 7 800 people, Cape Town 10 000, Mbombela 500 people, PE 1500, Bloemfontein 2000, Northern Cape plus minus 500. Two people were taken to hospital in Johannesburg. In Pietermaritzburg we have one person who was arrested.”
Communications Minister Dlodlo said the countrywide marches calling on President Jacob Zuma to step down were proof that democracy is entrenched as South Africans continue to exercise their constitutional rights:
“Today’s (Friday) actions demonstrated a maturing democracy with guaranteed freedom of association, speech and movement. The constitution guarantees the freedom of expression for all citizens. It also guarantees the right to dignity for all South Africans including President Jacob Zuma. South Africans will have another opportunity to make their mark in 2019. And through this free and fair electoral process, citizens can make their voice heard.”
State Security Minister David Mahlobo , supported by the defence minister, disowned the so-called intelligence report said to have motivated Zuma to sack Gordhan. He said the origin of the report was being investigated. They said reports of suspected xenophobic attacks that led to the death of at least one foreign national in Polokwane was also being investigated.
The ministers acknowledged reported clashes that resulted in minor injuries after the police deployed stun grenades and rubber bullets in ‘exercising their constitutional right to protect all citizens resident in South Africa, no matter their race or political affiliations’.
There were media reports of a clash between anti and pro-Zuma supporters in Johannesburg, outside the home of the Guptas, the controversial Indian family, largely perceived to be corruptly influencing some decisions of the Zuma government.
Reporters of ANN7, a private news channel owned by the Guptas, were seen on live television being attacked and humiliated by anti-Zuma protesters. ANN7 has attributed the attacks to incisive statements made by Pravin Gordhan last week in which he singled out the channel as the propaganda machine of the Zuma government. The channel also accuses anti-Zuma crusaders of “selective activism”
Communications minister Ayanda Dlodlo reacted to the attacks saying, “Freedom of expression and protection of the press is a pillar of our democracy”.
Tutu joined in protest
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and his wife Leah joined protesters outside the retirement home they are staying at in Hermanus, Cape Town, to add their support to nationwide anti-Zuma marches.
The gathering outside Parliament in Cape Town attracted the largest numbers, with protesters from civil society, political parties and ordinary citizens calling for Zuma to be removed.
“All those of us who are marching from the Treatment Action Campaign, from the Social Justice Coalition, from Equal Education, we are here with a very specific purpose – a just and equal South Africa,” activist Zackie Achmat told the media. He said the action was a unified one of African, coloured and white people.
A significant number of South Africans also came out in support of President Zuma, especially in his home base, Kwazulu Natal. Veterans of Mkotho we-Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC during the anti-apartheid struggle mounted sentry at Luthuli House, the ANC’s headquarters in Johannesburg. This compelled the official opposition party, the DA to change its march route to avoid a potential clash.
ANC loyalists, especially members of the Youth League, accuse the main opposition party, the centre-right Democratic Alliance, of being “run by whites and big business CEOs”.
“We are not going to listen to white people and white CEOs who do not represent the majority of South Africans … This is not a race issue. White people continue to be the bosses, to hold the economy and the land. That is not racist, it is real,” said Sifiso Motsweni, a senior official of the ANC Youth League.