South Africa: Thousands Join Antigovernment Protests

Thousands of protesters gathered in three antigovernment demonstrations in South Africa’s capital on Wednesday, illustrating the deepening public anger against President Jacob Zuma.

In the grounds of Pretoria’s St. Albans Cathedral, placard-waving demonstrators attended the first ’Save South Africa’ demonstration: a new platform of business, civil society and disaffected officials from the ruling African National Congress formed to protest against government corruption. In nearby streets, South Africa’s two largest opposition parties—the center right Democratic Alliance and the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters—held their own protests, calling for Mr. Zuma to respect the constitution and to step down.

Each protest had different messages but they were unified by one theme: dissatisfaction with the leadership of Mr. Zuma, who they accuse of presiding over a dramatic expansion of cronyism and graft.

“For as long as we have Zuma as president of the country it is not possible to turn the country around,” said Sipho Pityane, a former ANC former director-general of foreign affairs and chairman of mining giant AngloGold Ashanti. “At the heart of the problem we have a leader who is without honor or integrity.”

The protests come as the drip of corruption allegations against Mr. Zuma and his wealthy business associates has swelled to a torrent. The president—who denies allegations of cronyism—has been locked in a turf war with his Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan over government spending and the direction of the ANC, which has governed South Africa since the end of white-minority rule in 1994. Wednesday’s gatherings were originally scheduled to coincide with the trial date of Mr. Gordhan, who was expected in court on fraud charges, before the case was dropped on Monday.

Allies of Mr. Zuma, whose second term in office ends in 2019, have openly fought with Mr. Gordhan over control of state finances, including the running of state-owned enterprises, anticorruption agencies and the central bank. Ratings firms have warned that political infighting could lead to South African bonds being downgraded to junk status.

The fate of Mr. Gordhan has become a battle line in the conflict roiling the ANC, pitting presidential loyalists who advocate a more populist approach to governance against Mr. Gordhan, who vowed to tackle widening corruption and keep South Africa from losing its investment-grade rating.

The deepening fractures within the ANC, which for decades sought to quell internal dissent in private, were front and center on Wednesday.

Paul Mashatile, minister of culture and considered a leader of the party’s technocratic anti-Zuma wing, joined the protesters: “We say in our loudest voice, hands off Pravin Gordhan… there are many more people in the ANC who will travel this road with you.

The outcome of the struggle inside the ANC is likely to dictate the path of Africa’s most advanced economy—still reeling from the collapse of commodity prices, weak growth and stubbornly high unemployment—for the next decade.

Protesters on Wednesday hailed an important victory shortly before lunchtime as local media reported that Mr. Zuma had withdrawn his application to delay the release of a report over allegations of political influence by his wealthy friends. The release of the report by the Public Protector, a constitutionally mandated antigraft official, was suspended on Oct. 14 after Mr. Zuma’s application to the High Court.

The news fired the energy of placard-waving demonstrators, who danced to drums under the cathedral’s stain-glassed windows as a series of speakers delivered stinging rebukes against Mr. Zuma’s administration.

Among the protesters were some of the country’s top business leaders. Standard Bank co-CEO Sim Tshabalala said the protests marked the continuation of strong tradition of civil society and respect for the rule of law. “We are here to show we stand against the misuse of state resources and we stand for the rule of law,” Mr. Tshabalala said. Mike Brown, CEO of Nedbank, said there was a rising momentum behind the protests. “It’s clear that the soap opera of politics is hurting confidence and the economy. I don’t look at isolated incidents like today’s protests or the dropping of the charges against Mr. Gordhan, but the broader efforts of business and civil society to work together,” he said.