Protest time in South Africa
By Sandi Baker
South Africa is a divided country that once prided itself on being the poster child for truth and reconciliation. The people of South Africa went out to march on Friday, 7 April, most against President Zuma but some for him.
The marches were relatively peaceful with few incidents of violence and aggression. These were not the usual protests of black South Africans protesting against service delivery in far-flung areas in Limpopo away from the commercial hubs of Gauteng and Cape Town. These protests reflected the state of the nation better than any survey could have.
A large percentage of protestors were against Zuma and came from diverse walks of life, social backgrounds and different races. The racial demographic tended to reflect the area where the march was taking place. The largest marches were in Cape Town and Pretoria. Official reports estimated that over 60 000 people marched on 7 April, of course, unofficial estimates tend to be much higher. There was a healthy mix of racial groups and people. Their posters reflected their frustration. Some protestors mentioned that they wished that they had spoken out sooner against past injustices. The injustices they referred to include: the death of Andries Tatane who died during a protest after being assaulted by police officers, in 2011; Marikana, where police in 2012, killed 14 men who were striking; the #feesmustfall student protests which took place over the past two years; and the Esidimeni 100 patients who were transferred from mental care hospitals into private residences and who died there due to inadequate care. Most signs said Zuma must fall. Of course, there were some protesting in favour of Zuma. When the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) announced it would march to Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters, 600 military veterans stated that they would be there in support of Zuma to protect Luthuli House. The DA changed its marching plans, and the ANC distanced themselves from allegations that they called the veterans for protection.
There was talk of employers closing for the day so that their staff could take part in the march. Such a move was unheard of when people were protesting against the apartheid regime. In Bryanston, a wealthy suburb north of Johannesburg, residents stood on street corners and in front of properties protesting. Given the high walls and electric fencing, it could very well have been the first time that some of them met their neighbours. In smaller towns, such as Magaliesburg, Koster, Derby and Swartruggens in the North West province, there was not much evidence of any protestors.
A large percentage of the whites who marched felt positive and that they were finally doing something for the country. Before the march there had been a lot of criticism of the whites and the march in general. The leaders of the #feesmustfall movement asked where the support had been for the students. Some people queried how whites could march when they were the beneficiaries of apartheid and were privileged, and why they had not marched against poverty. There may be merit in asking these questions. However, they fail to take into account the fact that: Zuma is known to be corrupt. He has 763 criminal charges laid against him and has been found by the Constitutional Court to have ‘failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution”. He has instituted a system of patronage and is widely believed to be beholden to a small family from India. Under such a leader there can be no free education and no real poverty alleviation. Because, such a leader is only interested in looking after himself, his family and cronies. Such a leader should stand down.
It was when Zuma embarrassed the Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, whom many had considered as the last voice of reason against the looting of the treasury, and finally sacked him, that many decided to march against Zuma. It is widely thought that Zuma fired Gordhan, to place a stooge in his place who would agree to various deals including the granting of permission for a new bank in South Africa, and agree to finance the deal with Russia for nuclear power stations despite the national development plans making provision for more green energy. The nuclear power deal is worth a trillion Rands, and it is thought that Zuma will be personally enriched by it.
The anger that South Africans felt was stoked by the death of former ANC veteran, Ahmed Kathrada, lovingly remembered by many as Uncle Kathy, who died on 28 March 2017. At his funeral, ten days before the march, former Deputy President Motlanthe read out the letter Uncle Kathy had written almost a year earlier calling for President Zuma to stand down. Uncle Kathy’s death and funeral reminded South Africans of the calibre of people they had lost and who had led the fight against Apartheid. Headlines revealed that Uncle Kathy had not wanted Zuma to attend his funeral. While his death stoked the fire, Kathrada’s death also served to unify. Uncle Kathy was an Indian Muslim married to a white woman, who had speakers from Christian and Jewish faiths at his funeral and people from different political parties. It was a multi-faith, interracial gathering of people who had all been inspired by him. His funeral and memorial service held in Johannesburg briefly reignited memories of the golden era of Mandela and intensified calls for Zuma to stand down.
Opposition parties ranging from the Economic Freedom Front, led by former ANC youth league leader, Julius Malema to the DA again called for a vote of no confidence in Zuma. Special requests went to the Speaker of the House of Parliament, as Parliament was not in session. She, later, finally consented to the vote and scheduled it for 18 April.
The week started innocuously enough when the #Save South Africa campaign supported by other human rights organisations such as Corruption Watch, GroundUp, Section 27, and Outa amongst others, announced planned protest action at Church Square in Pretoria. #Save South Africa was started by Sipho Pityana, an ANC stalwart who was brave enough to speak out against Zuma in August 2016, at the funeral of Reverend Makhenkesi Arnold Stofile, South Africa’s former ambassador to Germany. The idea behind the protest and occupation of Church Square was that it should become as equally well known as the Tahir Square protests in Egypt. Social media had been abuzz over the previous weekend with calls for #BlackMonday for people to wear black if they could not make it to the square. There was a frisson of optimism over the weekend, too, when the Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, the general secretary of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, and treasurer general of the ANC, Zweli Mkize, spoke out against the cabinet reshuffle. The ANC top six including Ramaphosa, Mantashe and Mkize, met with Zuma and later met with the ANC National Working Committee (NWC) to discuss the cabinet shuffle and the reasons for it as they were not consulted but merely informed. On Monday, there was a small earthquake in South Africa measuring 5.2. Later that night, there was an earthquake in Botswana, measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale. The aftershocks were felt in Southern Africa, particularly in South Africa. The aftershocks prompted a lot of comment about deep structural cracks in firmament reflecting the political situation in South Africa. The NWC meeting was postponed to Tuesday with a briefing to be held on Wednesday. As the protest action gathered momentum, the ratings agency, Standard and Poor, revised its outlook down to junk status for South Africa. Something that South Africans had feared happening.
A leak to the media of the of the notes of the NWC meeting pre-empted the briefing. Media reported that Ramaphosa, Mantashe and Mkize had apologised to Zuma and the ANC for speaking out against the cabinet reshuffle. The leak was later confirmed, and Zuma survived another day and appeared stronger than before. The three was derided by many and considered sell outs.
A small group of ANC supporters, including an ANC Councillor, attacked the #Save South Africa protestors occupying Church Square. Tensions increased, and the calls for mass protests on Friday intensified. Friday morning finally dawned after a dark and stormy night in Gauteng. It not only was it the day of the march but it was also the day that South Africa had to appear in front of the International Criminal Court for failing to arrest Sudanese President Oma-al Bashir when he visited South Africa in 2015. Fitch ratings agency also downgraded South Africa to junk status. The march was a march of a divided society desperately trying to come together. It was a day when protesting meant many things to many people, but for many people, it meant down with corruption, down with poverty, down with racism, #feesmustfall, Marikana, Andries Tatane and the Esidimeni 100. But most of all, whether for or against Zuma, protesting meant wanting the South Africa that we thought we had under Madiba. Fortunately, the protests were relatively peaceful. The new Minister of Communications even said that South Africans could transcend their hateful past and build a better future together.
The feeling of optimism did not last long with members of the ANC youth league refusing to let Pravin Gordhan speak at Kathrada’s memorial service on the Saturday after the march despite being interdicted by court from doing so. At the wreath laying service on Monday 10 April, the 23rd anniversary of Chris Hani’s assassination, the Mayor of Ekhurleni, the region in which Boksburg (where Hani was assassinated) falls, issued a threat against Save South Africa and the whites. Zuma had also said that the Friday 7, protests were racist and there had been white racists with derogatory placards. Zuma is not above creating his own truths as there was no evidence of such placards despite the march being widely covered by the media and social media.
For Zuma’s birthday on 12 April, all opposition parties, bar two, and the #Save South South Africa and other civic organisations marched on Union Buildings. There were over 80 000 people who marched on 12 April. All of the leaders of the opposition parties spoke, but the one whose voice was the loudest was the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema. Malema, a known firebrand, with strong views against white capital, said that “If the marches on 7 April were racist, then he, too was a racist”. And in one sentence, Zuma’s racist rhetoric was downplayed, and South Africa took a step away from the brink. The collective sigh of relief was supported by the Constitutional Court agreeing to hear the application for the voting for the motion of no confidence to be done by secret ballot which had been lodged by one of the opposition parties’, the United Democratic Movement.
There have been previous votes of no confidence in Zuma, but none have been secret. It is hoped that by voting in secret, those members of the ANC who are too scared to vote against Zuma in open, may feel a bit more comfortable to do so in secret. Because of the application going before the Constitutional Court, the motion of no confidence will have to be postponed until the court hears and adjudicates on the matter.
Zuma, heading the ANC, doesn’t care for the people. If he did, he would not focus so slavishly on his own needs. His system of patronage is so pervasive that removing him and his cronies won’t be easy but South Africans are good at protesting, and a critical mass has been reached and is growing. 23 years’ ago South Africans voted in their first democratically elected government. In April 2017, South Africa is, once again, using the strategies that it used to fight apartheid; protests, rolling mass action and calls on religious leaders (to pray over the Easter weekend for Zuma to go). The most religious time in South Africa is Easter with many people travelling to family and religious events. This time in South Africa, the fight is not against race but against corruption. It is a fight for the very soul of South Africa. This time there is nowhere for South Africans to go, but to unite in a peaceful manner to pre-empt drastic steps which a greedy, corrupt leader who is hanging on to power may try. Hopefully, there will be a change for the better. And hopefully, once again South Africa will be able to transcend its leadership as it did once before under an unjust, inhumane, indifferent and corrupt government.