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South African opposition marks Zuma’s birthday with protest

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa’s opposition groups on Wednesday marked the 75th birthday of President Jacob Zuma with a protest against him, pushing for his resignation because of scandals and his dismissal of a widely respected finance minister.

The rally in Pretoria, which followed nationwide protests last week that drew tens of thousands on Friday, comes amid sharp criticism of Zuma within the ruling African National Congress party, although the president still commands the support of powerful ANC factions. Zuma, who is in his second five-year term after becoming president in 2009, has become a flashpoint for worry about government corruption and mismanagement in one of Africa’s most powerful economies.

“Take a permanent holiday!” said one protest sign mockingly wishing a happy birthday to Zuma.

Protesters gathered at a central square in Pretoria, north of Johannesburg, and started to march to the Union Buildings, which house the offices of Zuma and other ministries. Zuma was not expected to be there; a birthday celebration was scheduled for him in Johannesburg.

The protest against Zuma united groups with sharply different ideologies. The Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, includes many members of the white minority that still controls much of the economy 23 years after the end of apartheid. The smaller Economic Freedom Fighters party, led by former ruling party member Julius Malema, says it seeks the rapid transfer of land and industry to South Africa’s poor black majority.

On Monday, Zuma said many white demonstrators calling for his resignation are racist, referring to placards at demonstrations against him that allegedly depicted blacks in a derogatory way. Opponents described the remark as an affront to legitimate protest and said the president was trying to deflect attention from the groundswell of discontent with his tenure.

Key allies, including the South African Communist Party and the country’s biggest labor group, have urged Zuma to resign. The divided African National Congress, 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 scheduled for April 18.

A small opposition party has opened a court challenge to try to have the vote conducted by secret ballot, which analysts believe could allow some ANC lawmakers to vote against Zuma with less fear of reprisal from ruling party loyalists. The legal challenge has raised the possibility of a delay in the vote, according to South African media.

Zuma’s firing last month of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan in a Cabinet reshuffle intensified concerns about graft and the struggling economy in South Africa. 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, raising concerns about a weakening currency and price increases in a country with high unemployment.

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Follow Christopher Torchia on Twitter at www.twitter.com/torchiachris

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