Thursday is supposed to be the most important day on South African President Jacob Zuma's political calendar.
But as he prepares to take center stage for his State of the Nation address tomorrow night, the controversy-prone African National Congress (ANC) leader is fending off harsh criticism from a wide variety of groups over comments he made at a recent political rally.
“When you vote for the ANC, you are also choosing to go to heaven," he told the crowd. "When you don’t vote for the ANC you should know that you are choosing that man who carries a fork ... who cooks people. When you are carrying an ANC membership card, you are blessed. When you get up there, there are different cards used but when you have an ANC card, you will be let through to go to heaven.”
“His words are incendiary and dangerous, in that they seek to mobilize along religious lines, and sow seeds of division in our communities," said spokesman Lindiwe Mazibuko. "Indeed, this is an act of shameless political and religious blackmail – the sort of political skulduggery that may be the norm in autocracies, but that should be anathema to our constitutional democracy.”
Other parties such as the African Christian Democratic Party, United Democratic Movement, Christian Democratic Party have now all waded in, accusing Zuma of blasphemy while various religious figures and the SA Council of Churches seek meetings with the president to clarify his comments.
So far, Zuma has not commented on the furore and has left ANC figures to explain his comments.
ANC party spokesman Jackson Mthembu's explanation, however, has done little to mollify critics.
“The figurative weekend expression by the president remains figurative and metaphoric," said Mr. Mthembu. "We are, therefore, in agreement with the president that not voting for the ANC is tantamount to throwing your vote in burning hell.”
So much for the apology the groups were looking for. Instead, critics were berated by ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe.
“We are ... surprised by the childish reaction of the opposition parties," said Mr. Mantashe. "How childish can the opposition be in an open society and a free society? I don't understand the hullabaloo."