ST GEORGE’S CATHEDRAL, Cape Town, hosted a memorial service on Thursday of last week for Ahmed Kathrada, an ANC member, who died on 28 March.
Kathrada, who was sentenced with Nelson Mandela at the 1964 Rivonia Trial, and spent 25 years in prison, was a critic of President Jacob Zuma, and called for his resignation in an open letter last year. The memorial service was one of several taking place in South African cities, which took on the character of anti-Zuma rallies.
All the seating was taken an hour before the service started: the cathedral was so packed that vergers had to ask mourners not to sit on the altar. Thousands lined the streets outside.
Kathrada’s death seems to have brought to the boil divisions that have been bubbling inside the governing ANC about Zuma’s presidency, which is dogged by corruption allegations. At Kathrada’s funeral, held the day after his death, according to orthodox Islamic rites, Kgalema Motlanthe, President Zuma’s immediate predecessor and an Anglican, read excerpts from Kathrada’s open letter. Other leading ANC figures also made funeral speeches that were critical of the President.
That seems to have been the catalyst leading to the dismissal, the next day, of the Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, who had been engaged in public disputes with President Zuma. A former Communist, trusted by business and unions alike as a bulwark against mismanagement and corruption, after Mr Gordhan’s departure the rand fell by more than ten per cent, and ratings agencies downgraded government debt to junk status.
The Archbishop of St George’s, Dr Thabo Makgoba, released a statement criticising the person who ousted Mr Gordhan, stating: “President Zuma’s dismissal of the stellar team at the finance ministry constitutes an assault on the poor of South Africa. . . Ignorance can be educated, but there is no cure for recklessness.
“The President’s decisions are a frightening example of a leader who has continually showed his profound indifference to the economic health of South Africa.”
Mr Gordhan, a Hindu, addressed the memorial service at St George’s, and received a standing ovation from the congregation after echoing Kathrada’s criticism of the President.
The next day, demonstrations calling for Zuma’s resignation took place in all main South African cities. These were notable for their strong middle-class participation, and were supported by church leaders, critics of President Zuma within the ANC, and supporters of both main opposition parties: the centrist Democratic Alliance, and the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters.
The South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference released a statement calling for the President to “earnestly reconsider his position”.
The Dean of Cape Town, the Very Revd Michael Weeder, led the memorial service. Dean Weeder is an ANC member; he has called for President Zuma’s resignation, but also, over many years, for a radical transformation of racial disparities in wealth and power.
“St George’s is a venue that is important in Cape Town people’s hearts and minds,” Dean Weeder said at the weekend. “It became the people’s cathedral in the 1980s, under Archbishop Desmond Tutu. There is a rich association of the building with protest, which has been interestingly redemptive. Unlike cathedrals in England, ours came as part of a colonial onslaught which displaced the places of worship of our African ancestors.
“The current situation is very sad; but I won’t abandon the ANC, which taught me to love myself as an African when the Church failed to reflect Black people’s identity.
“I’ve been invigorated by the past few weeks, but also frightened,” he concluded. “The race card is being played. There have even been threats of assassination. Zuma will fight hard to anoint his successor. His wealth means nothing if he is in jail.”