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South Africans Protests Direct Ire at Zuma -- WSJ

8 Apr 2017 6:32 am

Mass demonstrations over his leadership as nation's credit rating takes another hit
By Joe Parkinson and Gabriele Steinhauser 

PRETORIA, South Africa -- Tens of thousands of South Africans took to the streets across the country Friday to call for the resignation of President Jacob Zuma after a week of turmoil that posed the gravest threat yet to his eight-year rule.

As protesters marched in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, Fitch Ratings cut South Africa's foreign- and local-currency credit rating to junk, becoming the second ratings agency to determine this week that the debt of Africa's most industrialized economy was no longer investment grade. The protests, which featured dozens of placards castigating the country's new "junk" status, marked the most broad-based expression of popular anger at a president long dogged by scandal.

The latest furor had erupted after he recently fired the finance minister and reshuffled his cabinet.

In Pretoria, the streets surrounding the Union Buildings were thronged with protesters, while demonstrators lined some roads and bridges that ring the capital. In downtown Johannesburg, there were skirmishes as the main opposition Democratic Alliance gathered a few streets away from a countermarch by supporters of the ruling African National Congress. Police fired rubber bullets at stone-wielding protesters.

"This is the moment we need to stand up," said Amos, a 31-year-old government worker in Pretoria, holding a poster of Mr. Zuma saying "Nope" in place of Barack Obama's "Hope." "The country needs to show we won't accept this."

Analysts said the protests likely would not decisively change the political arithmetic in a country still dominated by the ANC, which appeared to close ranks around Mr. Zuma after a week of public recriminations. Despite the show of force, neither South Africa's largest trade unions nor the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters called their members onto the streets en masse. More protests have been set for next week, while Parliament on April 18 will consider the opposition's motion for a no-confidence vote against Mr. Zuma, a vote he is widely expected to survive.

"It's going to take a lot to change the ANC's position. If the numbers and frequency [of protests] increase dramatically and if we have the same phenomena as Brazil or South Korea, then things could really shift, " said Darius Jonker, an analyst at EurasiaGroup, a New York-based risk consultancy.

ANC leaders loyal to Mr. Zuma framed the protests as being led by a white minority threatened by the president's vow to redistribute wealth. Standing outside the party's Luthuli House headquarters, which was protected by party paramilitaries, Collen Maine, the leader of the ANC's powerful Youth Wing said that he welcomed junk status if it would be accompanied by the radical economic transformation promised by the president.

"Zuma has done for us what Nelson Mandela never did...our message is clear, we are defending Luthuli House and Zuma," he said.

Mr. Zuma, a 74-year-old former ANC intelligence chief, is no stranger to scandal, having survived challenges including a ruling that he violated the constitution by refusing to repay public funds used to remodel his private home, and allegations that he let a wealthy family that is close to him choose cabinet appointments. He has repeatedly denied the allegations.

Opposition parties and civil society groups called for Friday's national day of action after Mr. Zuma's sweeping cabinet reshuffle prompted a firestorm of criticism from inside and outside his own party. The days that followed saw a growing chorus of ANC veterans, allied trade unions and the Communist Party call for Mr. Zuma to step down.

"We are not a junk country, we have a junk president," said Mmusi Maimane, leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance, as he addressed protesters in Pretoria.

According to organizers' estimates, the protests were the largest in South Africa since the advent of democracy in 1994, with around 50,000 protesting in Pretoria, 30,000 in Johannesburg and more than 100,000 in Cape Town. Estimates from local police weren't immediately available.

Despite the gathering dissent, the ANC leadership had circled the wagons to defend Mr. Zuma on Wednesday, seeking to show a united front and chastising members who had publicly criticized the president.

His ability to prevail will likely depend as much on the economy as on politics.

Write to Joe Parkinson at joe.parkinson@wsj.com and Gabriele Steinhauser at gabriele.steinhauser@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 08, 2017 02:32 ET (06:32 GMT)

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