By Ed Stoddard and TJ Strydom
PRETORIA/JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Sporadic violence broke out in Johannesburg as more than 50,000 people marched in South African cities to protest against President Jacob Zuma on Friday, demanding he quit after a cabinet reshuffle triggered the latest crisis of his presidency.
Zuma’s sacking of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan in the reshuffle last Thursday has outraged allies and opponents alike, undermined his authority and caused rifts in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which has governed South Africa since the end of white-minority rule in 1994.
Fitch on Friday followed S&P Global Ratings and downgraded South Africa to “junk”, citing Gordhan’s dismissal as one reason. S&P had issued its downgrade on South Africa in an unscheduled review on Monday.
In Johannesburg, police “fired rubber bullets at protesters who were attacking other protesters with stones. Four protesters sustained minor injuries,” Johannesburg Metro Police Department spokesman Wayne Minaar said. Some ANC backers were trying to breach a cordon separating them from members of the opposition Democratic Alliance.
Elsewhere in the city, the marches were peaceful.
Mmusi Maimane, leader of the DA, which had called for the marches, held a rally of more than 10,000 people that was calm, a few streets from the scene of the violence. Some held placards saying “Fire Zuma”.
“Our country is in crisis,” Maimane, who wore a bullet-proof vest under his shirt after the DA said it had received threats to the protest’s leaders, said. “The time to act is now.”
“We are unhappy about his leadership because he does not seem to care about the people,” said Syriana Maesela, 65, a retiree carrying a South African flag. “The irony is I did the same thing in 1976 when I was a student. I also marched then,” she said, referring protests against the apartheid regime.
About 10,000 gathered in a field outside the Union Buildings, the site of Zuma’s offices in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital.
A PROTEST SURVIVOR
Zuma, 74, has faced protests in the past. The ANC on Wednesday rejected calls for Zuma to quit, and analysts doubted marches would shake the president. It said its members in parliament would vote against a motion of no confidence in Zuma on April 18, a key rallying call for the marchers on Friday.
And Zuma supporters also gathered. About 300 camouflage-clad veterans of the ANC’s now-disbanded Umkhonto we Sizwe (MKMVA ) military wing ringed the party’s Luthuli House building in downtown Johannesburg, mounting mock parades and singing in support of the president.
Some clad in the yellow, green and gold colors of the ANC also danced, waving placards emblazoned with the words: “I’m prepared to die for my ANC” and “Hands off our President”.
“They are free to march freely but not to try and remove a government that was elected democratically,” said Kebby Maphatsoe, the head of the veterans group and also Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans.
“Let them wait for 2019 and we will take them on, but the ones that want to remove it undemocratically, MKMVA will rise up to the occasion.”
The rand <ZAR=D3> weakened slightly after Fitch’s announcement. The currency has tumbled more than 11 percent since March 27, when Zuma ordered Gordhan to return home from overseas talks with investors, days before firing him.
“The bottom line is we are paying for the consequences of the political regime that has lost direction,” said Gary van Staden, analyst at NKC African Economics. The downgrade will add to pressure on Zuma to leave office, he said.
Capital Economics Africa economist John Ashbourne said in a note that although there was mounting opposition to Zuma “we think that the most likely outcome is still that Mr. Zuma will decide the timing of his own exit.”
In Cape Town, motorists hooted in support of the march as about 10,000 people gathered at various points in the city, including outside parliament.
“It’s not simply a question of his removal. It is about the renewal of the ANC and democracy,” said Gerrald Ray, 56, a business strategist.
About 4,000 people were also marching in the coastal city of Durban, the main city in the KwaZulu Natal province, an ANC stronghold.
“We need to unite and fight this corruption,” said Michelle Fortune, 48, a manager who declined to say where she works. She wore a South African flag bandana.
Meanwhile, members of the ANC Youth League gathered in downtown Durban, singing “Awuleth’umshini wami”, a song popularized by Zuma, which means “bring me my gun” and held placards supporting the president.
(Additional reporting by Marius Bosch, Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo, Nqobile Dludla and Tanisha Heiberg in Johannesburg, Wendell Roelf in Cape Town and Rogan Ward in Durban; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Larry King)