JOHANNESBURG — Thousands of protesters marched throughout South Africa on Friday, with people of all backgrounds and colors gathering at multiple locations throughout the Rainbow Nation to demand President Jacob Zuma’s resignation.
Authorities said Friday afternoon that most gatherings had been peaceful and orderly, although local news stations reported that police fired rubber bullets at a group of Zuma supporters in central Johannesburg. In Polokwane, a city that is a stronghold of the ruling African National Congress, dozens of angry protesters set fire to tires.
Most of the planned events unfolded peacefully. In central Johannesburg, blue-clad supporters of the opposition Democratic Alliance shuffled slowly through the streets, yelling, “Zuma must go.” That party has called for a no-confidence vote in parliament, scheduled for April 18. In other Johannesburg neighborhoods, the protests took on a convivial air as residents brought pets, children, and babies to small street-corner gatherings with dozens of attendees.
In Cape Town, Archbishop Desmond Tutu lent his influential and increasingly critical voice to an anti-Zuma march as protesters waved flags and formed a human chain outside of parliament. And in the tiny seaside hamlet of St. Francis Bay, hundreds gathered to pray ahead of a peaceful march.
The increasingly unpopular president has already earned many critics for a raft of long-simmering corruption scandals, but his decision last week to fire a well-respected finance minister and reshuffle his Cabinet prompted those critics to call for protests and a nationwide shutdown Friday. The controversial political moves also sent the currency tumbling and prompted a major rating agency to downgrade South Africa to “junk” status.
In Johannesburg, 46-year-old property manager Kenny Davids took the day off to voice his displeasure with the president. Davids, who is black, says he was once loyal to the party of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president. He dismissed ANC supporters’ arguments that to turn against the party is a form of racism.
“It’s not about race; it’s about the country now,” he said. “The ANC liberated us, but they can’t lead us now. It’s not about, ‘now we must be stuck with the ANC when they’re doing wrong.’ No, we can’t.”
Outside African National Congress headquarters in central Johannesburg, thousands of Zuma supporters gathered to stand by their man. Hundreds donned the camouflage uniform of the ANC’s now-defunct military wing and stood at attention around the building, preparing, they said, to defend against an attack.
In a nearby square, college student Patricia Molutsi, who wore an image of Zuma’s face on her shirt, says she took an overnight bus from the city of Bloemfontein to show her support. Molutsi, 23, was born after the end of apartheid but says she feels it’s important to protect the gains made by the anti-apartheid movement.
“I came all the way here to fight for what my late brothers and sisters fought for,” she said. “Zuma is not the best president ever, but yet again I say, people do make mistakes, and who am I to judge? Where do we get power? If we let him go right now, we are going to have struggle again to start from the bottom to get the power. So, I basically came here to fight for what my brothers and sisters died for.”
The protests also drew out South Africans who, until now, have remained politically silent. At 7 a.m. on this gray Friday, 32-year-old corporate worker Jenny Min sat in her car and carefully stenciled over a cardboard sign which read, “Zuma: do the right thing! Say your goodbyes!”
“I think with what’s recently happening, it’s just come to a point where, enough is enough,” she said.
Other South Africans said they chose to stay out of the fray. Neonatal nurse Aubrey Mahlewele, 35, says he opposes Zuma, but stays away from protests as he opposes how they sometimes turn violent.
Mahlewele says he longs for Mandela’s ANC.
“They knew how to do things at that time,” he said with a sigh. “This is not the same ANC that we know now, compared to the ANC that we knew before.”
– Jennifer Janin in St. Francis Bay and Zaheer Cassim in Johannesburg contributed to this report I VOA