GAYE DAVIS and Sibusiso Nkomo
President Jacob Zuma’s leadership has come under unprecedented attack after he flew out of the country and avoided a potentially embarrassing showdown at SA’s main Youth Day rally.
Political opponents and analysts questioned Zuma’s commitment to ordinary South Africans.
At the same time, he is also reportedly facing considerable bitterness from powerful ANC figures over his uncompromising attitude towards expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.
Zuma was scheduled to speak at the Youth Day rally in Port Elizabeth. But he flew to a G20 leaders’ summit in Mexico on Saturday and Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane was sent instead.
Chabane was heckled during his speech by youths who apparently support Malema. Earlier, disgruntled local residents burnt tyres outside the stadium.
Police spokesman Major Ernest Sigobe said the protesters complained “about the lack of service delivery”. Police intervened before Chabane gave his speech.
The DA said Zuma had “no interest” in talking to the country’s young people.
The president “chose to abandon the youth on the one day dedicated to their struggles and achievements”, DA Youth chairwoman Mbali Ntuli said. “His choice is a slap in the face for young people everywhere.”
Ntuli accused Zuma of abandoning the youth. She criticised him for not having yet implemented the youth wage subsidy he announced two years ago and for which R5 billion had been earmarked. The proposal is opposed by Cosatu and the youth league.
Ntuli accused Zuma of delaying the scheme because he had to rely on Cosatu’s goodwill to help him secure a second term in Mangaung.
“On the youth wage subsidy the president has chosen to sell out the dreams of young South Africans to his own political aspirations.”
Eusebius McKaiser, social and political analyst at the Centre for Ethics at Wits University, said: “It is another example of him not being involved in engaging ordinary South Africans about their issues.
“ANC leaders seem to deprioritise communicating with ordinary people simply because they have a electoral majority. They only look at internal ANC issues and their careers over South Africans. If they did not have the electoral majority, they might be more responsive.”
Professor Steven Friedman, political analyst and director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg said Zuma’s non-appearance “does send an unfortunate message… His priority, it seems, is what happens in the ANC. He is showing a lack of sensitivity towards national commemorations”.
The Presidency’s announcement of Zuma’s change of plan followed reports that security was being tightened in response to a threat to disrupt his speech in Port Elizabeth.
Zuma was confronted with a similar situation in Cape Town in February when disaffected youth league members tried to derail his ANC centenary lecture.
Malema’s chances of the ANC’s national executive committee reviewing his expulsion were scotched when it was decided, at a special meeting last week, that there were no compelling grounds for his case to be taken up.
Malema, who may now feel he has nothing to lose, has been quoted as telling a gathering in Thohoyandou on Friday that Zuma is a “corrupt tribalist” who is president of a faction in the ANC rather than the party as a whole.
Malema accused Zuma of stifling debate in the ANC – an allegation also made against his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki – and said Zuma did not deserve a second term as president of the party.
“How do you say, when you have taken a decision in a democratic society, nobody must talk about it? Only dictators can say that,” Malema was quoted as saying.
“We don’t want the president that is going to be controlled by families outside the ANC. We want the president who will lead with the collective. President Zuma is not that leader.”
Zuma had been expected to name new members of the National Youth Development Agency board at the Port Elizabeth rally. However, glitches in the interview process by MPs meant this was delayed.