South Africa’s capital Pretoria witnessed a day of rage against beleaguered President Jacob Zuma as opposition parties, civil society groups, religious leaders, prominent businesspeople and students united to call for him to step down.
“We have to come to terms with the fact that as long as we have President Zuma as president of the country, it is not possible to turn the situation around,” said Sipho Pityana, convenor of the Save South Africa protest group and chair of mining firm AngloGold Ashanti.
Support for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has slumped along with the president’s popularity. While the ANC successfully midwifed the post-apartheid era, Zuma’s stewardship has split the party, and split the union movement that helped guarantee its electoral success.
Thousands of demonstrators marched up to riot police lines at the gates to the Union Buildings, the seat of government, as helicopters hovered overhead and queues of armoured vans idled in streets nearby.
Sporadic clashes saw protesters throw stones and light fires at road junctions while police responded with rubber bullets and stun grenades, as nearby hotels and cafes drew down their shutters and erected barbed wire barricades.
The protest action started early in the morning with a church rally by prominent business people, religious leaders, dissenting ANC grandees and civil society groups.
They were joined by supporters of the Democratic Alliance, the largest opposition party in the country which formed a series of coalitions to seize control of Johannesburg and Pretoria metropolises in local elections in May.
But the biggest turn-out was for Julius Malema’s radical Economic Freedom Fighters’ party, which saw between 5,000 and 10,000 demonstrators clad in the party’s distinctive red outfits march from a central square to the lawns of the Union Buildings.
The protesters attracted the biggest turn-out because of Malema’s threats to drag Zuma – who judiciously left the country for a meeting in Zimbabwe – out of his office.
But the vast majority of protesters contended themselves with waving placards calling for the head of the “Thief in Chief” and for fellow South Africans to “defend the democratic state”.
“We are here to give Zuma notice,” said Oupa Nplapo, 36, an engineering firm employee. “He must leave and take his ANC cronies with him.”
A fellow marcher wearing no party colours, who gave his name only as Abe, said his motivation was not political. “We need a change of leadership, our country has stalled with this one,” the 46-year-old private investigator said.
Elsewhere in the country students clashed again with police in Cape Town and Stellenbosch over high tuition fees, women marched in memory of the woman Zuma was acquitted of raping before he became president and church leaders led by the Archbishop of Cape Town held a silent vigil as a “lament for our beloved country”. The Nelson Mandela Foundation and powerful trade union Nehawu also added their voices to calls for Zuma to step aside.
If protests continue, the ANC will be thinking hard about Zuma’s future.
The Pretoria demonstrations had been meant to coincide with the appearance in a magistrate’s court nearby of the finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, who was facing what were widely-believed to be trumped-up charges of fraud for his blocking of Zuma’s spending plans. Those charges were dropped on Monday after the state prosecutor admitted he had no evidence to back them up.
Instead, Zuma’s lawyers appeared in Pretoria High Court to halt the release of an explosive report by the public watchdog that implicated him in a corrupt relationship with a trio of Indian brothers named the Guptas. The brothers allegedly dictated ministerial appointments and public policy in what has become known in South Africa as “State Capture”.
That hearing went ahead, to the sounds of whistles and chants from marchers outside, with Zuma’s legal team announcing to general surprise that he would drop his injunction bid “in the interests of justice and speedy resolution of the matter”.
“The president will give consideration to the contents of the report in order to ascertain whether it should be a subject of a court challenge,” spokesman Bongani Ngqulunga said.
Public protecter Thuli Madonsela said Zuma may have broken the executive code of ethics with actions such as in December swapping finance ministers three times in five days, wiping billions off the value of the rand and consequently South Africans’ pensions and savings. His preferred choice of candidate was also alleged to have met the Gupta brothers every day in the seven days preceding his appointment.
Madonsela, whose term of office ended last month, just days after she completed the report, ordered that a commission of inquiry be set up to probe the alleged corrupt relationship further – and stipulated that the chief justice and not Zuma appoint the presiding judge.
By: Aislinn Laing in Pretoria
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