JOHANNESBURG â€” Thousands of South Africans demonstrated peacefully Friday in major cities against President Jacob Zuma, whose dismissal of the finance minister fueled concerns over government corruption and a struggling economy. Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, 85 and ailing, made a rare public appearance to support the protests.
In Johannesburg, police fired rubber bullets to disperse about 100 ruling party members who were making their way toward protesters, the African News Agency reported. A few other confrontations were reported as police sought to keep groups of the president’s supporters away from anti-Zuma rallies.
Demonstrators demanded the resignation of the scandal-tainted Zuma, who for now retains the support of a ruling party facing an internal revolt against the president. Some people with banners lined stretches of road or stood on overpasses; passing cars honked their horns. In the capital, Pretoria, they marched to the Union Buildings, which houses many government offices. In Cape Town, motorcyclists with South African flags led a rally.
“Fire Zuma,” read some placards.
News24, a South African news outlet, posted photos of Tutu and his wife, Leah, standing with residents at a bus shelter outside the retirement home where they are staying in Hermanus, near Cape Town. Tutu was shown smiling and raising a walking stick, apparently to acknowledge passing protesters.
The retired Anglican archbishop, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his peaceful campaign against apartheid, has criticized the ruling African National Congress for alleged mismanagement over the years. He has been hospitalized several times since 2015 because of infections linked to past treatment for prostate cancer.
In Johannesburg, ruling party members assaulted several protesters participating in a march organized by the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s biggest opposition party, local media reported. Other ANC members in military uniforms who had been posted outside their party headquarters helped to escort the protesters to safety.
The government appealed for calm and said it respects the right of South Africans to protest peacefully, a legacy of the struggle against white minority rule that ended in 1994 with the country’s first all-race vote and the election of Nelson Mandela as president.
Pravin Gordhan, who was fired as finance minister in a late-night Cabinet reshuffle a week ago, was widely respected for his anti-corruption stance. The Standard & Poor’s agency lowered South Africa’s foreign currency credit rating after the dismissal, citing political instability and threats to economic growth.
Gordhan was seen as a counter to the alleged influence of the Gupta family, Indian immigrant businessmen who have been accused of trying to influence some of Zuma’s Cabinet picks. The Guptas deny any wrongdoing, and Zuma has said there was nothing improper in the way he chose ministers.
Zuma and the ruling party, which suffered big losses in municipal elections last year, have been weakened by other scandals around the president. Zuma was forced to reimburse some state money after the constitutional Court ruled against him last year in a dispute over millions of dollars spent on his private home.
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Christopher Torchia, The Associated Press