JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa's black president on Monday said many white demonstrators calling for his resignation are racist, prompting critics to describe the remarks as an affront to legitimate protest.
President Jacob Zuma sharply criticized multi-racial protests held Friday to express anger over presidential scandals and Zuma's dismissal of a widely respected finance minister last month. He was speaking at a commemoration for an anti-apartheid leader who was assassinated in 1993.
"The marches that took place last week demonstrated that racism is real and exists in our country," Zuma said, recalling the era of white minority rule that ended 23 years ago. "Many placards and posters displayed beliefs that we thought had been buried in 1994, with some posters depicting black people as baboons. It is clear that some of our white compatriots regard black people as being lesser human beings or sub-human."
The president also referred to "overt racist utterances and public displays that we saw during the marches last week."
Tens of thousands of South Africans, many of them affiliated with the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, attended the protests on Friday in major cities in the biggest show of discontent with Zuma. The roots of the Democratic Alliance lie in white liberal opposition during apartheid, but the party has sought to broaden its appeal and made big gains in municipal elections last year.
Another big protest against Zuma is planned for Wednesday in Pretoria, the capital.
Zuma's comments show "that he is out of touch with the South African public's very valid anger over his destructive leadership," the party said. It said the economic fallout from his actions "will have a massively negative effect on the poorest in our country, who are mostly black."
Zuma has also fended off challenges to his leadership from within the ruling African National Congress party. Key allies, including the South African Communist Party and the country's biggest labor group, have urged him to resign. The divided ANC, however, is seeking to project an image of unity and says it will defeat an opposition bid to oust Zuma in a parliamentary vote of no confidence on April 18.
The memorial where Zuma spoke was held in Boksburg, near Johannesburg, to honor Chris Hani, an anti-apartheid leader who was fatally shot on April 10, 1993. The killing of Hani by white racists stirred fears of all-out racial conflict, but Nelson Mandela calmed the situation. Mandela won South Africa's first all-race elections in 1994, making him the country's first black president.
In a speech, Hani's widow, Limpho, praised Zuma, saying he was the last leader of the African National Congress, then the main movement against apartheid, to see her husband before he died. Some supporters of Zuma chanted the president's name.
However, Zuma's firing of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan in a Cabinet reshuffle has intensified concerns about South Africa's struggling economy and government corruption, and some top ruling party leaders openly criticized the decision. Two agencies, Fitch and Standard & Poor's, responded to the political turmoil by lowering South Africa's credit rating to below investment grade, a step that could mean a weaker currency and price increases in a country with high unemployment.