South Africans gathered Thursday to celebrate the 23rd anniversary of the country’s first post-apartheid elections, but the annual Freedom Day celebrations were mixed with demonstrations calling for President Jacob Zuma to step down.
Zuma addressed the main gathering of supporters in his home province of Kwazulu Natal.
“This day must be the day on which we are happy to contribute more in building South Africa,” he said. “Happy Freedom Day to you all.”
Speaking in Zulu, Zuma criticized opposition parties, without directly addressing the ongoing political crisis.
But tensions were on display.
Hundreds of people demonstrated in Port Elizabeth and Pretoria. The protest was organized by the newly formed Freedom Movement.
Speakers at the gathering in Pretoria described Zuma as a danger to the country’s hard-earned freedom. They accused him of flouting the constitution, of corruption, and of making uninformed decisions that have hurt the economy.
“The people shall govern,” said speaker Ndileka Mandela, granddaughter of South Africa’s father of freedom, Nelson Mandela. “That means that the people have the right to call the government to account. We are today calling our government to account.”
No-confidence vote ahead
The protests come at a time when parliament is preparing to vote on a motion of no-confidence against Zuma. Opposition parties have approached the Constitutional Court to request the vote be a secret ballot.
“Zuma is no longer fit to become the president of the republic and it is South Africans united saying, ‘Enough is enough,'” said Democratic Alliance party leader Mmusi Maimane, who attended the protest.
The ruling ANC, with its majority in parliament, has been able to defeat an impeachment attempt and several votes of no-confidence against Zuma since he took office in 2009. However, a secret ballot in the upcoming vote would be a first and could leave Zuma more vulnerable.
Meanwhile, the crisis took a new twist Thursday as the country’s priority crimes unit announced it had arrested a 23-year-old man who authorities say was planning a hit on 19 people, including cabinet ministers believed to have benefited from Zuma’s alleged corrupt dealings.
Zuma has weathered several corruption scandals in the past year. This latest bout of opposition to Zuma began last month when he fired a popular finance minister.
Recently, many senior members of the ruling ANC and its alliance partners have openly called on Zuma step down. An anti-Zuma march in the capital earlier this month drew tens of thousands of demonstrators.
No new date has been set for the no-confidence vote, as parliament awaits the Constitutional Court’s ruling.