JOHANNESBURG – Speaking in an old fort and prison from South Africa's era of white domination, a former anti-apartheid leader hinted that he would like to see the country's scandal-hit president quit by referring to the 1974 resignation of U.S. President Richard Nixon.
"I wish we can have a long nightmare over in this country," said Mathews Phosa, echoing a similar phrase by Gerald Ford, the vice president who replaced Nixon after the Watergate scandal.
The barb aimed at the South African president, Jacob Zuma, drew chuckles from a crowd celebrating the 20th anniversary of the constitution adopted after the end of white minority rule in 1994. It reflected frustration among many older South Africans who campaigned for a multi-racial democracy decades ago and feel those earlier ideals are being cheapened by corruption allegations enveloping the presidency of Zuma, who denies any wrongdoing.
Accusations that Zuma, himself an ex-activist who was jailed during apartheid, is being manipulated by a wealthy business family are all the talk in South Africa these days. The Guptas, an Indian immigrant family, say they are scapegoats and victims of hate speech.
The phrase "Guptagate" is making the rounds. Blending Zuma and Gupta, an opposition party released "Zupta must fall," a song with an electronic beat.
Besides humor, though, there is a wistfulness among those who recall, with rose-colored glasses in some cases, a heady time when sacrifice, morality and, ultimately, reconciliation seemed clear-cut.
Phosa, who helped negotiate apartheid's end, spoke Thursday night at Constitution Hill, a downtown Johannesburg site that houses South Africa's highest court as well as the Old Fort prison complex, whose inmates included Nelson Mandela. The event marked the opening of "It's a Fine Line," an exhibition of pencil drawings of key figures on both sides of the fight over apartheid, as well as historical images and video footage screened in an old cell block.
Guests included Albertina Luthuli, daughter of Albert Luthuli, who was awarded the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize for opposing white rule; Limpho Hani, widow of assassinated anti-apartheid leader Chris Hani; and Pik Botha, a former foreign minister seen as one of the more liberal defenders of apartheid.
"I read about him in my textbooks and here he is in the flesh. Oh my goodness!" the moderator, Ayanda-Allie Paine, said of Botha. Also attending was Roelf Meyer, chief negotiator for the apartheid government during the political transition to majority rule in the early 1990s.
While the venue and VIP list were rich with history, South Africa's current political uncertainty, stirred by allegations that the Gupta family has had influence over some appointments to Zuma's Cabinet, seemed to be on everybody's mind.
"A good leader is a leader who knows when it is time to go," said Phosa, former treasurer general of the ruling African National Congress party. He referred to recent comments by Kgalema Motlanthe, a former deputy president under Zuma. Motlanthe, who was in the audience, had talked to the City Press newspaper about nurturing new leaders. Asked about calls for Zuma to resign, he reportedly said: "When we lower the bar, it means we settle for the lowest option."
The speech-making at Constitution Hill ended with Ivor Ichikowitz, a South African businessman whose family foundation sponsored the exhibition. Ichikowitz, head of the Paramount aerospace and defense company, said South Africans should have pushed harder for basic rights such as education after apartheid.
The industrialist concluded with a Mozambican revolutionary slogan used throughout southern Africa in the fight against white minority rule: "A luta continua" which, translated from Portuguese, means "The struggle continues."
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