South Africa’s political crisis has intensified as tens of thousands of people joined demonstrations across the country calling for Jacob Zuma to step down, police fired rubber bullets in scattered clashes and a second ratings agency downgraded the country to “junk” status.
Thousands marched through the rainy centre of Johannesburg, the commercial capital, on Friday amid a heavy police presence. A large protest also took place in front of parliament in Cape Town. Smaller crowds of a few hundred people protested on suburban street corners and bridges in the main cities and towns.
South Africa: ANC in chaos after Jacob Zuma sacks finance minister
One protester, Lydia Potgieter, 69, said she was there to “support the efforts of all South Africans to be rid of a corrupt system that is eating away everything we have worked for over the last 20 years”.
Thana Dzwane, 27, had left her office with five colleagues to attend the rally. “It’s about Zuma and his people,” she said. “They are ruining the country. Things are only going to get worse unless there is a change soon.”
In Pretoria, the administrative capital, thousands more gathered at the Union Buildings, the seat of government, carrying banners reading “Zuma not my president” and “the power of the people is stronger than the people in power”.
Analysts have described the crisis – triggered by a cabinet reshuffle last week in which widely respected finance minister Pravin Gordhan was sacked – as the most serious to face South Africa since minority white rule ended more than 20 years ago.
It has laid bare deep divisions within the country, and within the African National Congress, the party that led the liberation struggle and has ruled since 1994.
Zuma, a party veteran in power since 2009, has been accused of filling posts in key institutions with loyalists, packing party committees with supporters, and maintaining inappropriate relations with a powerful family of local tycoons. The 74-year-old, who has been named in hundreds of corruption charges, denies any wrongdoing.
“I think this is a really important moment,” said Nic Cheeseman, an expert in democracy in Africa at Birmingham University. “The South African state is under threat … The system now has problems throughout. A lot of these tendencies were latent and Zuma has been so damaging because he has brought them out.”
The sacking of Gordhan, the finance minister, led to a slide in the value of South Africa’s rand currency and an almost immediate downgrading by international ratings agency Standard and Poor’s. A second agency, Fitch Ratings, downgraded South Africa on Friday.
Zuma has brushed aside calls for his resignation from veterans of the liberation struggle, unions and South Africa’s Communist party, a historical ally of the ANC. A powerful ANC committee backed the president last week, and he is expected to survive a no confidence vote in parliament later this month.
“There is a battle for the soul of the ANC,” Cheeseman said. “There is the party of [Nelson] Mandela and the Freedom Charter; there is Zuma and his acolytes who want to use the party for their own interests. It is unclear who will win out … but we are clearly moving downhill.”
Though members of all South Africa’s communities were present at the protests, South Africa’s white minority, less than10% of the population, was disproportionately represented.
“There is a change coming,” said Potgieter. “The white people are the middle class people. Until now they have just sat down and taken it easy while black people have done something. Now there is more mobilisation.”
ANC loyalists accuse the main opposition party, the centre-right Democratic Alliance, of being “run by whites and big business CEOs”.
Kedibone Khumalo, a 31-year-old from a small town in rural Free State who travelled for four hours in a bus with her local ANC branch to join a Zuma support demonstration outside the party’s headquarters in Johannesburg, said: “The whites don’t like Zuma … but actually he looks after everybody. It is a good government. You get roads, homes, free medical aid if you are pregnant.”
Zuma will step down as ANC president later this year. His replacement is likely to lead the country if, as is widely predicted, the party wins elections due in 2019. Many pundits say the ANC, which suffered heavy losses in last year’s municipal polls, may garner less than 50% of the vote, which would be a major blow.
Investors fear a slew of populist measures which may further weaken a flagging economy. Malusi Gigaba, the new finance minister, has pledged to “accelerate radical economic transformation” which would redistribute wealth currently “concentrated in the hands of a small part of the population”.
South Africa has 54 million inhabitants, but just 10% possess more than 90% of the country’s wealth. Ownership of land and companies remains mostly in South Africa’s white communities.
Zuma has recently spoken of a new bid to expropriate land without compensation from big farmers. This may play well with key rural communities which are strongholds of the ANC, but has less resonance in cities, where Zuma is deeply unpopular.
Hundreds of ANC supporters, some bearing sticks and bricks, others wearing combat uniforms, guarded the party’s headquarters on Friday. Police fired rubber bullets after some attempted to disrupt the opposition march.
Sifiso Motsweni, a senior official in the ANC Youth League, said the party was just “defending its property” from opposition “thugs” and accused opposition parties of trying to use “unconstitutional means” by taking to the streets.
“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 Motsweni.
Dzwane, who joined the Johannesburg protest against Zuma with her colleagues, said: “This is not about being white or black or whatever. It is about what’s best for the country.”