Struggle veteran Ahmed Kathrada's funeral on Wednesday at the Westpark Cemetery in Johannesburg turned into a rallying cry against President Jacob Zuma, amid reports of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan being fired and an imminent Cabinet reshuffle.
There were plenty of hints around dissatisfaction with Zuma and his leadership, including a heavy-hitting speech by Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the South African Communist Party and Minister for Higher Education and Training, who has fallen out with the president.
But former president Kgalema Motlanthe's eulogy contained the most hard-hitting criticisms of Zuma, using Kathrada's own words calling for Zuma to step down to thunderous applause -- including from his own ministers.
[The presidency] is a position that requires the respect of all South Africans, which of course must be earned at all times.Ahmed Kathrada
"It would be disingenuous to pay tribute to Kathrada today and pretend that he was not deeply disturbed by the current post-apartheid failure of politics," said Motlanthe.
"In this regard we did not put words into his mouth post facto, or posthumously, since true to his consistent principles he penned a public letter to the president of our country in which he gave vent to his views on the state in which our nation finds itself."
The audience went quiet as Motlanthe began to quote from Kathrada's letter written in 2015.
"I have always maintained a position of not speaking out publicly about any differences I may harbour against my leaders and my organisation‚ the ANC. Today I have decided to break with that tradition.
The position of president is one that must at all times unite this country behind a vision and programme that seeks to make tomorrow a better day than today for all South Africans. It is a position that requires the respect of all South Africans, which of course must be earned at all times."
He continued with the letter, quoting:
"And bluntly‚ if not arrogantly‚ in the face of such persistently widespread criticism‚ condemnation and demand‚ is it asking too much to express the hope that you will choose the correct way that is gaining momentum‚ to consider stepping down?"
He ended the quotation there to thunderous applause, with members of the audience giving him a standing ovation, including Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, former Congress of South African Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, Nelson Mandela's former assistant Zelda la Grange, and ANC heavyweight Max Sisulu. Gordhan too stood.
- Read the full letter by Kathrada here.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa stayed seated, as did former president Thabo Mbeki and his wife Zanele.
It took some time for the audience to settle down, and singing continued with stalwart Winnie Mandela pictured smiling.
Two members of the ANC top six, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe and his deputy, Jessie Duarte, remained seated, looking sad and worried.
He found current South African leadership wanting on many fronts that he mentioned in his letter and would not hesitate to call for the resignation of the president of the country with whom the buck stops.Kgalema Motlanthe
An "amandla" from Motlanthe eventually quieted the crowd so he could continue his speech, but not before someone from the audience shouted: "Phantsi Zuma, phantsi!" meaning, down with Zuma.
When the crowd eventually settled, Motlanthe took further aim at Zuma's lack of response to Kathrada's letter: "354 days ago today Comrade Kathrada wrote this letter to which a reply has not been forthcoming. As you are aware, his letter went without any formal reply. I've quoted Comrade Kathy at length in this regard to make the point that for better or for worse what he stood for never changed according to the fluidities of history. He held on to the immutable laws of history as far as they were prescriptive of what is most desirable for human life."
Motlanthe did not hold back any punches as he continued.
"Comrade Kathrada took exception to the current culture of feeding frenzy, moral corruption, society depravity, political dissolution, the broad sleaze enveloping the human mind that would put to shame even the vilest political orders known to human history.
"He found current South African leadership wanting on many fronts that he mentioned in his letter and would not hesitate to call for the resignation of the president of the country with whom the buck stops."
At that, the audience again applauded.
Pravin Gordhan teared up as Balton said to him, whether he remained finance minister or not, he captured the principles Kathrada stood for.
The funeral was a charged one, that quickly centred around political events in South Africa at the moment.
South Africa was on tenterhooks on Wednesday with rumours circulating that a Cabinet reshuffle was imminent.
Rumours that Zuma was about to reshuffle his Cabinet, specifically removing Gordhan from his post, have being doing the rounds for well over a year.
Neeshan Balton, executive director of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, caused a further round of applause when he asked Gordhan to stand. The minister teared up as Balton said to him, whether he remained finance minister or not, he captured the principles Kathrada stood for.
Curious charges hung over Gordhan's head for months, until they were finally dropped in October last year, leading to rumours that the charges were trumped up to be used by Zuma as a premise for sacking the finance minister.
But the speculation reached fever pitch on Monday when Zuma instructed Gordhan to return home from an investor roadshow.
On Tuesday, Business Day quoted three sources who claimed that Zuma had told the South African Communist Party that he planned to fire Gordhan.
Also on Tuesday:
- Treasury went on the offensive, releasing a detailed statement about the cancelled international investors' roadshow and warning about the consequences of higher borrowing costs;
- Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, tweeted that Gordhan was told by Gwede Mantashe, secretary general of the African National Congress (ANC), that he and Jonas will be fired; and
- Gordhan and Jonas made a defiant public appearance, attending proceedings at the minister's application being heard at the High Court in Pretoria, where he is challenging the Guptas.
But speculation then turned to the possibility that Zuma might not make the announcement because of the sudden death of struggle hero Kathrada, who died in the early hours of Monday morning.
In February, speculation revved up a notch when former Eskom boss, Brian Molefe was suddenly parachuted into Parliament at an MP. It was widely rumoured that this was a precursor to his eventual ascendency to the finance ministry, as either minister or deputy minister.
So far, Zuma has said little to quell fears, with the exception of a brief comment here. He denied the rumours in a light-hearted comment he gave to eNCA on the sidelines of an investor lunch in February.
"I don't know.. since last year this speculation [about a Cabinet reshuffle] has been there, [but] it has never happened, just forget... I will tell you when I need to tell you," Zuma told eNCA, and joked that he would "put it on Twitter".
[VIDEO] President Zuma gets asked about cabinet reshuffles by a journalist... Take a listen to his answer... pic.twitter.com/pu5sCVvpZH
— eNCA (@eNCA) February 7, 2017
In September last year, the presidency issued a statement denying that a Cabinet reshuffle was imminent. This was prompted by a list of possible Cabinet appointments that circulated on social media.
The list made no mention of the finance ministry, but speculated that, amongst other appointments, Des Van Rooyen would take over the Ministry of Economic Development. MP Pule Mabe was rumoured to become deputy to Lindiwe Zulu at the Small Business Development Department.
There were also rumours that Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom would lose his job after he and other ministers called on Zuma to step down in November last year during a heated NEC meeting. Hanekom, who was a close friend of Kathrada's and managed the programme at the funeral, later said the rumours did not bother him.