06/04/2017 18:42 SAST | Updated 09/04/2017 12:56 SAST

It Can Be Done: How Street Protests Toppled The South Korean President And What South Africans Can Learn From Them

More than a quarter of a million people took to the streets to protest, leading to the eventual downfall of Park Geun-hye scandal-ridden presidency.

Kim Kyung Hoon / Reuters
Protesters light fireworks as they celebrate the impeachment of South Korea's ousted leader Park Geun-hye at a rally in Seoul, South Korea, on 11 March, 2017.


On Friday, South Africans took to the streets of Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town in a "national shut down" that is aimed at bringing an end to the scandal-ridden presidency of Jacob Zuma.

This is not the first attempt at a "Zuma Must Fall" movement. After the sudden sacking of Nhlanhla Nene (at the time finance minister) in December 2015, there were protests in some cities, and a larger, more co-ordinated effort on April 27, 2016.

Another round of Zuma Must Fall marches was planned after he similarly got rid of Pravin Gordhan and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas.

These events have taken on a pattern. Zuma reshuffles his Cabinet, causing market panic and a currency devaluation. In response, some citizens organise public demonstrations. The African National Congress organises counter-protests, and afterwards the president's people issue a statement effectively saying "nice try, but he's going nowhere."

The pattern so far is unbroken. The protests don't seem to have a momentum -- and the reason may be that the scope of these protests has been very limited so far. They tend to be focused in the centre of big cities, and are organised on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Both of these tactics have the effect of excluding much of the country's working and unemployed poor, who tend to live far from the locus of these protests, and are not made a part of the organisation and mobilisation of the marches.

Two countries with a recent history of successful mass protest show the importance of mobilising a vast number of people.

In November 2016, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, to protest against the presidency of Park Geun-hye. By March 2017, she was out of office, ousted by a parliamentary impeachment and a constitutional court ruling.

Park's scandal had remarkable parallels to Zuma's relationship with the Gupta family: the daughter of the dictator Park Chung-hee, and the country's first female ruler, she is accused of having close ties to a cult leader, who in turn used this proxy to extract bribes from corporations and powerful people. As president, Park is accused of having granted her dubious friend access to presidential funds and classified material.

Mass demonstrations, encompassing students, workers, civic organisations, and opposition political parties have been a fixture of Korean life for decades, and the so-called Candlelight Protests that brought down Park were the same.

Thanks to the immunity that the president enjoys in South Korea, it was not possible for her to be tried for this corruption without being deposed. Hence the massive protests.

These demonstrations were not concentrated in Seoul, however. The organisers made sure that they were spread out through the country. It is notable too that there were counter-protests too, with many older, conservatives feeling that they were damaging to the country's image.

Writing in the Asia Times, Sun-chul Kim, an assistant professor of Korean Studies at the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Emory University, noted that mass demonstrations, encompassing students, workers, civic organisations, and opposition political parties have been a fixture of Korean life for decades, and the so-called Candlelight Protests that brought down Park were the same.

He also noted the importance of organisation, and the insistence on non-violence.

"The weekly candlelight protests were organised by Emergency Action for Park's Resignation, a coalition of more than 1,500 civic organisations. In the past, large coalitions were often plagued by fierce infighting among competing political groups. To avoid discord, the anti-Park coalition set rules for decision making based on the lowest common denominator among participant organisations," Kim wrote.

"Its role was focused on providing political space for citizens of all walks of life to come and express their views freely. From booking celebrities to setting up lost-and-found services, the coalition paid close attention to the details of the rallies to make them more accommodating to all," Kim wrote.

Romania too has been the site of massive protests. According to Time magazine, as many as half a million people marched earlier this year to protest the implementation of laws that would have shielded a scandalously corrupt government from anti-corruption measures. Though the laws were rescinded, the protests continued as the people -- organised from all walks of Romanian life -- continued to demonstrate their might against an unpopular government.

The ingredients for real mass demonstrations against the unpopular presidency of Zuma already exist in our society: from landless people and shackdwellers to trade unions, LGBT+ organisations and students, our society is remarkably well organised. There are civic organisations about virtually every issue you could think of. If nothing else, the Zuma Must Fall protests of suburban Johannesburg and Cape Town demonstrate that the potential to organise the chattering, wealthy classes exists too.

But what South Africa lacks is a genuine effort to knit together all these groups into one mass movement, based on the very lowest denominator of concerns: removing a failed president, and building a broadly-accessible, egalitarian economy (not to forget the genuine and persistent problem of racism, which inevitably divides and stratifies the people).

But the South Korean example should offer hope to all people who are concerned about South Africa. It is possible.