It started as a traditional Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) results announcement ceremony, but it soon became an occasion where President Jacob Zuma was overshadowed by four women who were violently removed from the event by the presidential security.
The four women stood, dressed in black, holding five placards in front of the podium as Zuma made his speech. Nobody listened to the president, but instead the crowd was drawn to the young protesters and the words on their posters.
The posters read: “I am 1 in 3”, “#”, “10 years later”, “Khanga” and “Remember Khwezi”. The posters referred to the woman Zuma was accused of raping 10 years ago. The woman, known only as Khwezi, reportedly wore a khanga (a decorated cotton fabric that people drape around themselves) before the rape. The first poster referred to statistics which indicate one in three women in South Africa are sexually abused in their lifetime.
When Zuma concluded his speech, the women were violently removed and shoved out of the ceremony to a separate VIP access area where they disappeared. Security prevented media from following what was happening in the VIP area, but the Mail & Guardian heard the women screaming from where journalists stood just outside the area. The VIP area is not visible to people without access to enter.
When asked why the women were crying, the security refused to answer and instead told journalists to leave.
The four women left the IEC national results operation centre, where the ceremony was taking place, soon after the incident. The Mail & Guardian saw them leave unharmed and voluntarily, though they were shaken.
The proceedings inside the IEC centre continued as normal and concluded with the audience, dignitaries and IEC officials standing to sing the national anthem.
Later, Bathabile Dlamini, the president of the ANC Women’s League, made a statement on what had transpired. Dlamini said Zuma had been found innocent of all charges and blamed the IEC for not taking action to protect the president. The ANCWL president said that the IEC should have told the president to sit down, dealt with the protesters, and then invited Zuma back up to conclude his speech and apologised to him.
“No head of state should be treated like this,” Dlamini read from her statement. “We demand that the chairperson of the IEC apologises to the president and it must be done with immediate effect.”
She also mentioned that EFF representatives had left the ceremony as Zuma stood to make his speech, saying the EFF had planned the protest to force Zuma to be removed as president. She noted that during the past few days no female member of the EFF had spoken on a public platform, and instead, only male members of the party had made statements. Some of the four girls have been identified as supporters of the party.
“If they wish and think that our president is going to step down, that is a dream,” Dlamini said.
Dlamini, who refused to take questions from journalists, did not comment on the way the four women were treated by Zuma’s bodyguards.
— Mail & Guardian (@MG_Reporter) August 6, 2016
The IEC has yet to address what has happened, with the exception of the IEC deputy chairperson, Terry Tselane, apologising after Zuma had stepped down from the stage.
“This took us by surprise and we really want to apologise to all of you,” Tselane said.
But the protest and the reaction to it has been a blow to the president and the ruling party, which has lost support in the elections. During the ceremony, the commission declared the elections free and fair, but could not provide results for the City of Johannesburg, which had only been 99% completed with the ANC leading and the DA just behind.
The four women, meanwhile, said they will soon release a statement on the protest and what had happened.
Speaking to eNCA, Simamkele Dlakavu, a student and one of the protesters, said that she had attended a memorial event for Khwezi organised by the One in Nine campaign, an non-government organisation that fights sexual abuse in South Africa. The event received little attention, and the women, while at the results ceremony, decided to do something.
“It wasn’t planned, it was spontaneous. I said to my sisters: ‘how am I going to listen to this man, when a few weeks ago we were protesting this man?’,” Dlakavu said.
The silent protest was a refusal, Dlakavu said, to be silent when rape and gender-based violence has become widespread in the country. Although Zuma was acquitted of the charges, the young protester says that an acquittal does not mean the president is innocent.
“We refuse not to name and shame rapists. We refuse to let the country forget, because it happened,” Dlakavu said.