Hundreds of thousands gathered in South Africa’s cities on Friday afternoon calling for President Jacob Zuma to step down. The protests came after the nation’s credit rating was cut to junk status earlier this week, further intensifying its political crisis.
“The response from people has been absolutely remarkable,” says Lawson Naidoo of Save South Africa - the campaign group leading the demonstrations. “I was in Cape Town which probably saw the biggest march in the country today - there were over one hundred thousand people on the streets in the city center.”
In Cape Town’s suburbs, residents formed human chains on main roads. “Cape Town came to a standstill today. Ordinary South Africans took up the call that we had made, and people just organised their own demonstrations across the country,” says Naidoo.
The government claimed that fewer than sixty thousand stepped out to protest across the country today but many protestors spoke of a sense of solidarity in a time when the governance of South Africa reached a critical moment.
The opposition party - the Democratic Alliance (DA) - were involved in organising the demonstrations and many of its supporters took a stand against the president during the protests.
“The atmosphere was peaceful but serious about the message and issue of Jacob Zuma not being fit for president,” says Cathlene Labuschagne, leader of the DA in the National Council of Provinces. “The demonstrations in Cape Town were organised by various role players from the wider community, including the DA.”
“It’s a very determined atmosphere,” says Steve Kromberg, a Social Media Trainer marching in Cape Town. Kromberg protested during the anti-apartheid struggle that led to the nation’s first democratic vote in 1994. “People are disappointed in Zuma and they’re angry. Partly for him selling out the state to the Gupta’s.”
Protesters in Cape Town marched on Plein Street towards the parliament buildings raising placards - some of which read - “Zuma Must Fall,” and “The Only Junk Thing About SA.”
Around thirty thousand from all walks of life were reported to have assembled outside the Union buildings in Pretoria, many holding banners and placards.
The controversy in South Africa’s political sphere intensified after a cabinet reshuffle saw the sacking of Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, leading to a drop in South Africa’s credit rating.
The sacking caused key ANC partners to join the calls for Mr Zuma to step down, but he is not due to go until his term runs out in 2019.
Mr Zuma dodged further calls for him to step down by powerful bodies in the country, such as unions and the South African communist party. The president also got the backing of a committee in parliament, who could have otherwise had him sacked.
But supporters of Mr Zuma also held demonstrations around the country. A heavy police presence was seen at the ANC headquarters in Johannesburg as ANC supporters and members of the party's youth league gathered.
“There were ANC demonstrations in Kwazulu-Natal and Johannesburg at Luthile House and some violence was associated with those,” says Naidoo.
Save South Africa says that activism in the country needs to be maintained and that today’s events were just the beginning. “People suddenly realise that they have power and they need to learn how to use that power. I don’t think it’s the last time we’re gonna see that,” says Naidoo.
“This is just the beginning,” says Kromberg. “This is more than I expected and I hoped the opposition would be united. People are uniting and we all have to come together for the 2019 elections.”
In response to the protests, ANC presidential contender Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said in a tweet; "This is what they are protecting... hence some of us are not part of this rubbish. They must join us for the march for our land they stole...” The tweet was in response to a conversation on Twitter where Mayihlome Tshwete of the South African treasury said the Save SA protests were well-funded. The tweet was later deleted.