A cartoon doing the rounds shows Jacob Zuma in his office looking out over thousands of protesting South Africans. “It’s the people, they have come to say goodbye!” he is told. Zuma replies, “Goodbye? I wonder where are they going?”
The joke from Derek Bauer’s 1989 cartoon that took aim at then apartheid president PW Botha was picked up by cartoonists Zapiro and Findlay. It has been used before to ridicule Zimbabwean President For Life Robert Mugabe, who the grizzled, ageing Zuma increasingly resembles.
The scale of the protest against Zuma is unprecedented in democratic South Africa. Civil society has been joined by opposition political parties, with Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) holding hands. Their supporters turned out in their tens of thousands on Zuma’s 75th birthday this week, not to wish him well but to wish him gone.
A protest by grannies went viral on social media as did the image of an elderly woman from the Black Sash who stood with the same placard she used on the same spot in 1984 asking: ‘Mr [PW] Botha when will you hear?’
There were also protests and scuffles outside the Gupta estate in Saxonwold, the family of moguls accused of having Zuma in their pocket. Police sent a helicopter and deployed a heavy presence, appearing to reflect government priorities. The protesters were met by a handful of belligerent members of the Black First Land First movement, there to defend the property of the foreign tycoons and hold up placards with ‘Hands off Zuma’ and ‘White Monopoly Capital Puppets’, a phrase cynically invented in the London boardroom of PR consultancy Bell Pottinger.
The obsession with race has been ugly and is likely to get worse as Zuma clings to his presidency by employing ever more nationalistic and racially charged language in a populist ploy to distract the masses from his private capital accumulation plans and mobilize the same constituency which Mugabe has so effectively used in Zimbabwe to hang on to power.
So-called veterans in full camouflage fatigues were on guard outside the ANC’s Luthuli House. As one commentator wittily observed, they had aged very well. Hardly any of them could have been more than ten years old during the fight for liberation. Actual veterans of the struggle were outraged, and have become increasingly shrill over the consternation that is Zuma. When the onslaught didn’t come, the “veterans” or rented thugs as the Communist Party (SACP) called them, went out to target and stab white DA protesters.
That most white people are against Zuma is hardly debatable, but they are not against Zuma because they are white, and they are certainly not against him because he is black.
The Gupta owned news channel, ANN7, headlined its risible report on the mass protests with ‘selective outrage disrupts life’.
If there were disruptions it was to the memory of the dead and those who fought for liberation. Quite shockingly for party members, the ANC Youth League disrupted the memorial service of struggle stalwart and Nelson Mandela’s former closest friend, Ahmed Kathrada.
As always with South Africa, ironies and contradictions abounded during the protests. The only people the police fired on with rubber bullets were pro-Zuma supporters. The government then congratulated anti-Zuma protesters for their good behaviour.
While the Black First Land First movement is fronting for foreign capitalists, COSATU labour union federation has come out in support of a mining magnate, the deputy president Cyril Rhamaphosa and board member of the platinum enterprise responsible for the Marikana massacre.
The unions say they want Zuma out, but then they pleaded with ANC MPs not to vote against Zuma in Parliament, even though this is the only constitutional way of removing him. Bizarrely, several fired ANC cabinet members have resigned as MPs and given up their seats ahead of the Motion of No Confidence vote.
The SACP – the ANC’s alliance partner in government – has officially called for Zuma to step down, even though Zuma has more or less given them everything they ever wanted, except the head of minister Bathabile Dlamini, responsible for the social grant fiasco. The SACP also wants an independent judicial inquiry into state capture and the revoking of the citizenship and residential rights of the Guptas. But will their MPs vote in Parliament with the opposition parties to remove Zuma from office?
Zuma’s glove puppet and Speaker of the National Assembly Baleka Mbete has postponed the vote on a Motion of No Confidence tabled by DA leader Mmusi Maimane originally scheduled for 18 April 2017, ‘pending the conclusion of the Constitutional Court application by the United Democratic Movement (UDM)’ that the vote be by secret ballot. Zuma and Mbete have filed papers with the court opposing a secret ballot.
Thabo Mbeki’s removal as president by party recall was from a democratic and constitutional point of view deeply unsettling and carried shades of the old apartheid way of doing political business. It would be a magnificent shot in the arm for South Africa’s troubled democracy and reinvigorate the executive if Zuma was democratically fired by his party through the constitutional process designed for just such an eventuality. Such a vote would set a vital precedent that a rogue president will never be tolerated in democratic South Africa. The question is, how far as the party fallen from its founding ideals? Can anyone still have confidence in the ANC to do the right thing?