Over the Palm Sunday weekend, there were large demonstrations in South Africa’s urban centers against President Jacob Zuma and the African National Congress (ANC) in the aftermath of last week’s cabinet reshuffle. The largest demonstrations took place in Cape Town and Pretoria, where, according to the media, demonstrators numbered in the tens of thousands. Elsewhere, demonstrations were much smaller. The demonstrations received extensive media coverage internationally and in the United States, however, they will certainly have no impact on Zuma’s position or the ANC in the short term. For his part, Zuma accused the protestors of being racist.
It is always difficult to judge the measurable impact of demonstrations on political change. For example, it is hard to link the demonstrations across the United States against the Vietnam War and then-President Richard Nixon to specific policy changes. Similarly, large demonstrations the day after President Trump’s inauguration in the short term appear to have effected little.
That being said, large-scale public protest may have an impact over the longer term. Such nation-wide rallies contributed to the paranoia of the Nixon administration and helped establish a context for his eventual departure from office. In South Africa, if nothing else, the demonstrations over the past weekend should bring home to the ANC leadership (if not President Zuma) the apparent growing alienation of South Africa’s urban centers; at present, the party only governs one of these urban centers, Durban. The ANC risks becoming more rural as the country becomes more urban – estimates are that roughly 60 percent of South Africa is considered urban. For the time being, the ANC has firmly nailed its colors to Jacob Zuma’s mast, deeply unpopular though he is. These realities will play a role in the elections of 2019.