NEWS

Zuma, The Shrinking President Who Just Won't Go

The president made it clear on Wednesday that he will not go, but he is shrinking, little by little.

13/04/2017 10:23 SAST | Updated 13/04/2017 17:23 SAST

ANALYSIS

President Jacob Zuma looked almost comically small in the enormous white chair set out for him on the stage. He slouched, and the chair had the effect of making him look like Lewis Caroll's Alice In Wonderland after she drank shrinking potion. Curiouser and curiouser indeed, as the president sat aloft inside the tent in Kliptown where his birthday party bash was unfolding on Wednesday.

But this was no shrinking president.

Despite the events which occurred earlier in the day, when an estimated 80,000 people marched to the Union Buildings to demand his resignation, the president seemed utterly unfazed by all the ruckus.

Led by 10 opposition parties, thousands of South Africans marched through Pretoria holdings signs that said things like: "Zuma must fall!", in what some said was the biggest display of popular mobilisation since the dawn of democracy.

Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema addressed the crowd, vowing that the protest would not be the last, and promising that this was the first of a series of rolling mass actions that would continue until Zuma goes.

No memorandum was handed over, he said, because Zuma does not read. Malema said Zuma should go back to his village at Nkandla, and hit back at the President, who said the march that took place last week, also calling for his head, was racist.

"If wanting Zuma out is racist, then we are all racist!" Malema said.

Democratic Alliance MP Phumzile Van Damme called for "Zuma [to] Phuma!".

The crowd seemed overwhelmingly EFF, although the DA made a strong showing, followed by other political parties. Opposition party leaders walked arm-in-arm in a display of unity.

It was a festive day, with singing, dancing a chanting, and no push back in the streets from the ANC as was previously feared. The event wrapped up around 2pm, just after Malema's address.

As the crowd dispersed, as if on cue, in Kliptown, crowds were starting to stream in to the tent where Zuma's birthday would be held. Initially, it was unclear just who had organised the event.

It soon became abundantly clear that this was an ANC event, and that it was more than just your run-of-the-mill 75th birthday.

This was an event attended by Zuma's fans and arranged to elevate him to the state of a demi-god.

Zuma did not shrink, and yet he was very much alone on stage, with the only other member of the ANC's top leadership in attendance being ANC deputy secretary general, Jesse Duarte.

"This is indeed a day when we should be thanking you for a number of things. Thank you for teaching us that now is not the time to be weak and frail, but to be courageous with them... not to share a platform with our enemies or walk shoulder to shoulder with them but to show them that the ANC lives and the ANC leads," gushed Duarte.

Other praise singers included ANC Youth League secretary general Njabulo Nzuza, Cosatu president S'dumo Dlamini, and Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association president Kebby Maphatsoe.

Zuma's praise-singers-in-chief were MC, water and sanitation minister Nomvula Mokonyane and social development minister, Bathabile Dlamini.

Dlamini called on all South Africans to defend Zuma.

The event was neatly stitched up with performances by the veterans, in full military regalia, giving the effect of poorly-rehearsed storm troopers, ready to defend Zuma at any moment (but not quite ready for So You Think You Can Dance).

The crowd was wall-to-wall ANC t-shirt wearing loyalists, and with only his allies on stage, Zuma came across as a well-loved, benevolent mini-deity.

When his turn to speak arrived, he appeared relaxed and told the crowd in Zulu that they needn't worry about the opposition. The opposition was simply doing their jobs by being oppositionist for opposition's sake, he said.

He would gladly step down, Zuma said, if only the ANC would ask him to.

He sneered at the opposition, saying they would hate him no matter what he said, even if he sneezed, and said they had had similar problems with Mbeki and Mandela.

Zuma said his criticism came down to the question of land, and hinted that he believes the furore over his presidency is because he is trying to reform the country, economically.

"When we talk about the issue of land, I don't make people happy... There's so much poverty, unemployment and inequality because we were robbed of land," he said.

By the time the event was over, Zuma's lengthy address was the clearest indicator yet that outside pressure will not be enough to make him go, even if he shrinks just a little each time the pressure increases.