JOHANNESBURG — The funeral of one of South Africa’s leading anti-apartheid activists on Wednesday exposed the angry divide over the fate of a country he fought decades to see exist. President Jacob Zuma said he wouldn’t attend after Ahmed Kathrada’s family asked him to stay away, while funeral-goers rose in a standing ovation for Kathrada’s recent call for the scandal-ridden Zuma to step aside.
Kathrada, who spent years in prison with Nelson Mandela for opposing the former white minority government, died Tuesday at age 87. He stepped into the spotlight last year to urge Zuma to quit after numerous corruption allegations against him shook the faith of many in the ruling African National Congress, the country’s former liberation movement.
The ANC flag covered Kathrada’s coffin Wednesday, and a statement from Zuma’s office said South Africa had lost “one of its valuable and most respected freedom fighters.”
But the growing frustration over the country’s leadership burst out among the aging activists, including Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie Madikizela Mandela, 80.
They rose in a standing ovation when Kgalema Motlanthe, a former deputy president under Zuma, quoted from Kathrada’s letter urging Zuma to leave to avoid deepening the “crisis of confidence in the government.”
There was another standing ovation for Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, whose strong reputation as a bulwark against corruption has raised investor fears that Zuma will soon fire him. The rand currency has dropped, further worrying residents of a leading African economy that has stalled amid high unemployment.
Many South Africans have shown their impatience with the president, who was found last year by the country’s highest court to have violated his oath of office by refusing to pay back some of the millions of dollars in public money spent on upgrading his rural home.
The ANC under Zuma last year suffered its worst-ever election showing after comfortably leading for a generation, losing control of key municipalities including those of the commercial hub, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria.
Three months later, Zuma later survived an attempt by senior party members to oust him as president.
Now the shaken ruling party looks ahead to a conference in December that will determine who will succeed Zuma as the ANC’s leader — and likely as president, as the party has never lost the general election since taking power in 1994.
The country’s next presidential elections are in 2019.