JOHANNESBURG - It was supposed to be a national day of reconciliation, a South African holiday meant to bring the country together in peace and unity after its violent past.
Instead, more than 20 years after the end of the divisive apartheid regime, thousands of protesters took to the streets of three major South African cities on Wednesday bearing "#ZumaMustFall" signs and demanding the president’s resignation, a sign South Africa may be on the cusp of another political turning point.
Although pressure has been mounting on President Jacob Zuma for months, some analysts think this may be finally be a breaking point for the president, and the nation.
“Last week, some in the African National Congress crossed a line,” wrote respected political scholar Steven Friedman, who leads the Center for the Study of Democracy.
The line he refers to is Zuma’s recent decision to fire a well-regarded finance minister, replace him with a veritable unknown, then fire the new minister less than 72 hours after his swearing-in, only to replace him with the man who served as finance minister two ministers ago.
The move sent shockwaves through the nation’s political and economic systems, as the country's ailing currency fell further and stock prices plummeted.
The firing of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, who made a name for himself by standing firm against some of Zuma’s financial proposals, such as his bid for a pricey new presidential jet, set off the firestorm of controversy.
That fire even lapped at the fraying edges of the ruling ANC, which is well-known for its emphasis on party discipline. The nation’s former health minister called for Zuma to step down, as did several junior ANC members.
Party Loyalists Still Behind Zuma
But the main body of the ANC defended Zuma's actions in a statement, flipping the narrative to commend him for listening to public outcry over his sudden, inexplicable choice of little-known Parliament Member David van Rooyen and his final decision to appoint former minister Pravin Gordhan, who was well-respected during his recent term as finance minister.
“President Zuma's decision to appoint comrade Gordhan therefore is an explicit demonstration of a responsive and accountable government,” the party said in a statement.
But critics are not appeased, including the nation’s official opposition, the Democratic Alliance.
“Public confidence in Jacob Zuma is at an all-time low, with loud calls for Zuma to fall, yet the ANC has refused to listen to the public outcry, and has refused to acknowledge its seriousness,” the party said in a statement this week. “The ANC does not listen to South Africans and it is an entirely out of touch party that has abandoned our common good.”
The one man who seems to be ignoring the criticism is the ever-smiling president.
His current term runs until 2019, and the ANC enjoys a parliamentary majority, dooming repeated attempts in parliament to impeach him.
But as his popularity has declined amid multiple scandals, first his alleged use of government money to build an extravagant home, then his government’s refusal to arrest Sudan’s president on a war crimes warrant during a visit, analysts predict the party will pay for Zuma’s foibles in next year’s local elections.
On Wednesday, as protesters were demanding his removal, he gave a speech in the small city of Port Elizabeth that made no mention of the latest political crisis.
“Reconciliation must go hand in hand with healing,” he said. “Indications are that while we have done a lot to transform and rebuild our country, we still need to do much more to promote healing.”
But it seems fewer in South Africa are listening to the president these days.