Perhaps never before has the downgrading of a country’s credit rating sparked a protest march. Thousands of young South Africans, braving rain, took to the streets of the capital April 12, angry at president Jacob Zuma’s record of alleged corruption.
The march through Pretoria was the third since Standard & Poor’s then Fitch cut South Africa’s bond ratings to junk, but it was by far the largest show of force and could turn into the first real mass movement against Zuma. Organized by a quickly formed coalition of opposition parties, the red berets and overalls of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters dominated the crowd. The protestors were young, energetic and irreverent, singing the whole way as they passed shuttered businesses.
Leaders drove luxury vehicles—a Mercedes Benz, a Range Rover and Harley Davidson motorcycles—but the show of wealth was less important than the fact that such riches are not shared with the majority of the population. Protestors carried cardboard coffins in the colors of the ruling African National Congress, posters littered with vulgarity, and, in a popular dig mocking the shape of Zuma’s head, a butternut on a stick.
The ratings downgrade occurred just glimmers of economic hope arrived. South Africa’s rand had strengthened and the country added 18,000 jobs in the last quarter of 2016. The knock-on effects of the ratings downgrade may kill those trends. South Africa’s struggling economy hits its youth the hardest. About half of South Africans under the age of 35 are unemployed; 60% of those under 25 are jobless.
The Democratic Alliance held a march on April 7 through Johannesburg, as did the Save South Africa Campaign, a civic organisation, in Pretoria. Both marches incurred the ire of Zuma loyalists who threatened organizers with violence in the days before the march.
The Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, was criticized for representing narrow interests in a country already struggling to bridge the income, class and racial divides left by apartheid. Despite their frustration with Zuma, many young black South Africans can’t reconcile marching with the Democratic Alliance, a party whose senior leadership is dominated by white South Africans.
The Democratic Alliance’s marches now resemble an African National Congress bash, complete with musical performances, struggle anthems and dance troupes in a bid to attract a more diverse crowd. While the majority of protestors were black on April 7, it was easy for Zuma to dismiss the protest as “racist” because of the Democratic Alliance’s leadership and their latest gaffes about the benefits of colonialism.
The Save South Africa campaign is more multiracial, made up of aggrieved ANC members and the activists behind South Africa’s successful Aids-drug movement, the Treatment Action Campaign. They mobilized early and quickly and have consistently called for Zuma to step down since the state of capture report, which illustrated Zuma’s ties to the wealthy Indian Gupta family, was made public. The campaign is racially diverse but has struck many as elitist and middle class, out of touch with basic issues like service delivery and education.
Still, the official opposition and the Save South Africa campaign all joined march of on April 12, Zuma’s 75th birthday. The Democratic Alliance, sent one of their most senior black party leaders, dressed in a traditional outfit in the party’s colors. Also present were parties most South Africans had not seen or heard from in years. The crowd cheered loudly whenever a speaker insulted Zuma, and groaned at politicians who took a more measure approach.
The protests left Zuma unperturbed. He joined the African National Congress in its own protest of sorts: a large birthday bash to celebrate the president. In the days before, the ruling party had publicly supported Zuma’s decision to fire Pravin Gordhan (who shares a birthday with Zuma), backtracking on earlier criticism. Zuma remained ever cool while cutting his giant birthday cake.
The marches held since the downgrade have taken place in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, cities where the African National Congress isn’t in power. Drumming up anti-Zuma sentiment in South African urban centers isn’t difficult. If similar protests occur in more rural provinces, especially in Zuma’s stronghold KwaZulu-Natal, that would signal a truly widespread popular uprising against South Africa’s embattled president.