President Jacob Zuma’s leadership has come under unprecedented attack after he flew out of the country and avoided a potentially embarrassing showdown at the country’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 at Wolfson Stadium in Port Elizabeth. Instead he flew to a G20 leaders’ summit in Mexico on Saturday and Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane was sent to Port Elizabeth.
The Minister was heckled during his speech by youths who apparently support Malema.
Earlier in the day, disgruntled local residents burnt tyres outside the stadium.
Police spokesman Major Ernest Sigobe said the protesters complained that “they were not properly consulted about the event and complained about the lack of service delivery.” Police intervened before Chabane gave his speech.
The opposition DA said Zuma’s absence suggested he had “no interest” in engaging the country’s young people.
The president “chose to abandon the youth of South Africa on the one day dedicated to their struggles and achievements”, said DA Youth chairwoman Mbali Ntuli.
“His choice is a slap in the face of young people everywhere.”
Eusebius McKaiser, social and political analyst at the Centre for Ethics, Wits University said: “It is another example of him not being involved in the process and 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,” he said.
Professor Steven Friedman, political analyst and director of Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Johannesburg said Zuma’s non-appearance “does send an unfortunate message… his priority, it seems, is the ANC and what happens in the ANC. He is showing a lack of sensitivity towards national commemorations.”
Meanwhile, reports have emerged of furious exchanges at an ANC National Executive Committee meeting last week in which a petition to review Malema’s expulsion was debated. According to reports, Zuma’s leadership style was criticised and ANC heavyweights Blade Nzimande and Tony Yengeni nearly came to blows. Zuma refused to yield on the review.
Sapa reports that Zuma’s lack of empathy for the unemployed, land seizure without compensation, and unemployment bridging racial divides were among the themes of political party messages on Youth Day.
On Saturday, Helen Zille said the government had failed to respond to the crisis of youth unemployment and Zuma was incapable of leadership or feeling the pain of others. “We have a president who simply seems unable to understand the lives others lead. Empathy for the others, we know, is the beginning of the sincerest kind of reconciliation,” she said in a speech at a Youth Day function in Soweto.
The ANCYL also made pointed comments about the party’s leadership, saying the country’s youth should prepare themselves to take on the task of economic freedom.
Freedom Front Plus Youth leader Wouter Wessels said the youth still faced enormous challenges that included unemployment, poverty and illiteracy.