PRETORIA - A celebratory atmosphere hung over President Jacob Zuma’s home on the occasion of his 75th birthday Wednesday. Tens of thousands of South Africans donned bright colors and marched to his official residence in central Pretoria, singing and dancing as they made their way through the streets.
But they were not bringing birthday wishes.
Instead, tens of thousands of South Africans massed on the president’s front lawn to ask the increasingly unpopular leader to leave office. Seven major opposition parties organized Wednesday’s march at Pretoria’s Union Buildings, and said they will continue to loudly, and peacefully, protest Zuma for the duration of his term, which is set to end in 2019.
"Zuma is no longer a credible president of South Africa," far-left political leader Julius Malema told the ebullient crowd.
The president has already earned many critics for a raft of long-simmering corruption scandals. But his decision last month to fire a well-respected finance minister and reshuffle his Cabinet prompted those critics to call for a nationwide shutdown and protests on Friday. The opposition has called for a no-confidence vote in parliament next week.
ANC also targeted
Protester Ntshebele Baphela, 35, a supporter of Malema’s far-left Economic Freedom Fighters party, said the long-ruling African National Congress, the party Zuma leads, is his true target.
“I don’t only want Zuma to resign,” he said. “But what I’m calling for, I’m calling for the ANC to leave. ANC is not in the interest of the people of South Africa. ANC is not in the interest of the poorest people of South Africa.”
Like Baphela, many people in the mostly black crowd refuted Zuma’s claims that those who stand against him are racists.
A florist who gave only her first name, Bongiwe, stood out, not for her political allegiances, but for the fact that she marched in four-inch stiletto heels. She said she doesn’t identify with a particular political party, and accused the president of race-baiting.
“He sows division by always playing the race card to suit his own plans and ambitions,” she said. “So we don’t buy it. As black people, we also have, we believe in ethics. We know what’s right and what’s wrong. We believe in accountable government. We are anti-corruption. It’s not a white thing, it’s not a black thing, it’s a human race thing. It has nothing to do with color. So really Zuma, your time is up.”
A festive protest
As tens of thousands of participants sang, danced, blew vuvuzelas and created a party-like atmosphere on the lawns of the president’s home, one of the youngest protesters, six-week-old Yann, slept through the whole thing.
But his mother, Susanna Hattingh, 38, said she felt strongly that she needed to interrupt her maternity leave with some peaceful protest action against Zuma.
“He’s the main leader and he doesn’t lead by example,” she said. “And it seems like everything that filters down is led by him, in terms of the breakdown of the country.”
And what of the birthday president? He did not make an appearance before the crowd, choosing instead to meet with supporters — many of whom had been bused in from other provinces, where he remains popular — in Soweto. In a statement, his office said his birthday wish is to “see more progress being made in building a better life for the poor and the working class.”
Leaders of the growing mass of South Africans calling for his resignation say they’d like the same, which is why they say Zuma needs to go.