South Africa’s largest opposition party has sparked anger after putting up election posters deemed racially inflammatory in a town still reeling from the killings of dozens of mostly black people during unrest in July.
The worst violence in the country’s post-apartheid history erupted after ex-president Jacob Zuma was jailed on July 8, and residents of the predominantly ethnic Indian town of Phoenix set up their own protection squads in response to pillaging and arson.
Some of these grassroots mobilisations turned violent and 36 mostly black people were killed in the southeastern town, with locals of Indian descent largely blamed.
The opposition Democratic Alliance early this week put up posters around Phoenix reading: “The ANC called you racists, The DA calls you heroes.”
The posters have been widely criticised as racially divisive, sparking anger in a country still struggling with its apartheid past.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) party described the posters as “shameful and fascist in nature”.
“That’s how shallow DA has become it terms of their politics. They play the race card instead of focusing on issues. They are stoking fires,” ANC regional spokesman Nhlakanipho Ntombela told AFP.
Ordinary South Africans meanwhile expressed their disgust on social media.
“The posters reflect what the DA really is, which is racist,” Vukani Khumalo tweeted. “Innocent people were killed in Phoenix but, because they were Black, the DA believes they deserved to die”.
“Those posters are callous, incongruous with reality & the worst instance of weaponising tensions for short-term political gain,” tweeted author and political analyst Eusebius McKaiser.
But even in the face of the backlash, the DA was unrepentant.
“I’m never going to apologise for calling ordinary South Africans who stood up for law and order to protect the rule of law, I’m never going to apologise for calling them heroes,” DA leader John Steenhuisen told reporters in Johannesburg on Wednesday.
“They are heroes, whether they be black, white, Indian or coloured (because) they stepped up when government stepped away.”
White middle-class past
Formed in 2000 as a merger of three mostly white parties, the DA has struggled to stave off its white, middle-class identity.
It has seen an exodus of black leaders. Its first black leader Mmusi Maimane quit in 2019 after four years at the helm. The following year the former mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, left claiming the party was racist.
South Africans go to the polls on November 1 to elect mayors and municipal councillors.
The ANC party, which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994, is fighting to regain its popularity since suffering its worst electoral setback during the last local polls in 2016.
It has been sullied by corruption scandals and riven by factionalism.
But the party’s former leader Zuma — whose July jailing for contempt sparked the riots — has made an unexpected call for people to vote for the ANC.
“I have been listening and observing… there are a lot of people who say, because of different reasons, they have taken a decision not to vote,” Zuma said in a recorded video message shared by his foundation on Tuesday.
Zuma called “on those who intend not to vote, let’s all stand up and vote, and vote more especially for the party that brought us freedom, the ANC.”
The former president, who was placed on medical parole last month, was addressing the public for the first time since he left jail.