ZumaMustFall billboard. Picture:  AFP PHOTO/RODGER BOSCH
ZumaMustFall billboard. Picture: AFP PHOTO/RODGER BOSCH

ON FRIDAY January 15, early in the morning, an anonymous, eight storey-high banner reading "Zuma must fall" was unveiled in central Cape Town.

The space it occupied, on the corner of Kloof and Buitensingel streets, was a long-standing advertising spot operated by Independent Outdoor Media (IOM) that spans the seaward-facing façade of a residential block of flats at the top of Long Street.

The message, in stark, black capital letters on a white background, stacked the three words one on top of the other. It’s unclear how much it cost, but estimates are between R200,000 and R400,000.

The message mirrored the core slogan disseminated by protesters in 2015. They had come together following the decision by President Jacob Zuma to dismiss finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in early December, sending the rand into free fall and decimating local markets.

In a December 20 article on The Daily Maverick website, head of the African National Congress (ANC) subcommittee on communications Jackson Mthembu complained the campaign revealed an anti-ANC bias among South African journalists and editors.

He warned the media they should be, "ever mindful that what they disseminate on social media platforms should be aligned with their commitment to objectivity and neutrality".

This account aims to document the ANC’s reaction to the banner and some of the reporting on it, for the record.

Almost immediately following the unveiling of the banner speculation spread across social media as to who was responsible.

The Independent Group’s main Twitter account, @IOL, tweeted: "Who is behind the giant #ZumaMustFall billboard? Is it @Our_DA or @EconFreedomZA? Tweet us your ideas! @IOL".

Other breaking news accounts, such as Eyewitness News, @EWNupdates, asked, "Whodunnit?".

Pictures of the banner soon went up in news stories across SA’s online news network, accompanying stories that emphasised the mystery.

"Mystery ‘Zuma Must Fall’ billboard causes a stir in Cape Town", read a News24 story.

The Democratic Alliance (DA), which in the run-up to the 2014 elections had erected a number of anonymous billboards across the country, highly critical of the ANC, soon denied responsibility. National spokesperson Phumzile van Damme told the press, "It isn’t ours."

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema told eNCA news that his party was also not responsible for the banner, however, he applauded the sentiment.

By midafternoon, by which time interest was reaching fever pitch, the DA-run City of Cape Town administration had responded, declaring the banner illegal and in violation of city by-laws.

"It was erected by a private party. We also know that this person has done this before, also in contravention of the by-law, and so we want to ensure he faces the full might of the law," a city spokesperson said.

It was also said to have contravened the National Building Regulations and Standards Act.

The city statement emphasised that the administration was not responsible for the content of any given advertisement: "Applications are evaluated against the technical requirements of the by-law, such as the size of a billboard and, for instance, whether the erection would constitute a safety hazard."

The banner was deemed to have violated these conditions, although the statement did not explain expressly how. It is understood that, in practical terms, the problem was that the banner covered the windows of those apartments over which it hung. Later window shapes were cut out.

With regard to the content, the city referred the media to the Advertising Standards Authority of SA (Asasa). "Asasa is the national body to which members of the general public can complain when they deem advertising and/or marketing to be unacceptable."

Soon the ANC began to mobile against it. Late on Friday afternoon the Western Cape ANC issued a statement blaming the DA for the banner.

ANC Western Cape leader Marius Fransman said: "The DA supported the so-called campaign ‘Zuma must fall’ which had its largest gathering here in Cape Town (on December 16) — close to where the banner is draped on a building. And it happened in a DA-run province and city."

Fransman claimed people would "rather get rid of president Zuma than get rid of racism". He argued that "the owners of that building where the banner was erected and whoever paid for it, should account publicly why they can (sic) fight the black president and not the biggest evil facing our society, namely naked intolerance fanned by hatred and race supremacists".

Slowly, the ANC built up steam. At a function for the Jacob Zuma Foundation on Friday evening, Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry Mzwandile Masina likewise denounced the banner as racist: "Those few individuals who continue to be racist, to the point that they have money (to spend) instead of supporting students, insult the leader of the republic. We want to warn them that our patience is running out.

"I want to issue a very strong warning to those racists in Cape Town who are putting up boards undermining democracy that we have fought for. I want to say to them the anger of South Africans is building up to the point that it is boiling. And if they are not careful, they will go down in history to have caused the tensions that are unnecessary," he said.

In response, the Independent Group the following day went with the headline, "Zuma Must Fall: Cape racists warned".

On Saturday, ANC MP Bongani Mkongi wrote on his Facebook profile, "Join the ANC in Cape Town today at 14h00 to burn down the billboard saying ‘ZumaMustFall’. The billboard must not be lifted down, but, burnt down!"

Below that, someone called Joelene Samuels pointed out, "We can’t burn it down as it is pasted on an apartment block, people inside the apartments will burn to death."

To this Mkongi replied, "They must burn to death as it is life to them to keep it that way."

The DA sent Mkongi’s remarks to the parliamentary ethics committee for investigation. He later apologised, saying, "While I stand by my post that the banner must fall, and I am pleased that it fell, I apologise for the second part of my message that suggested the banner must burn with the building."

In the same apology he said, "Any agitation for the removal of a democratically elected President outside of the election is unconstitutional, dangerous and must never be condoned."

The ANC stated it would not be taking any action against Mkongi on the grounds that he had offered an apology.

That afternoon, just after 3pm, by which stage the banner and the controversy surrounding it was fairly ubiquitous across the media, a group of ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP) supporters gathered to destroy the banner. They climbed the building to the roof and entered various flats from which they hacked at the banner from open windows. It took two hours but, eventually, the banner was torn down the middle and only fragments remained.

SABC News ran a relatively positive story on the ANC’s actions. It included the following: "They arrived just after 3 o’clock. Bracing the scorching heat, they climbed the building’s rooftop and started pulling down the billboard, using everything at their disposal, including their bare hands. It was a daring move, which required creativity and bravery."

Interviewed in that same story, Xolani Sotashe, the ANC regional leader who had led the group, said: "Our presence here is to really send a very strong message to whoever put this insulting billboard here, that, look, freedom of speech, we accept that, but we can’t allow a situation where the head of the country is being insulted, and then, as the ANC, the organisation where he belongs, we keep quiet."

He descried it as "insulting" for the city to claim the banner contravened by-laws and that it would be dealt with by the proper authorities.

"For this group of brave activists, it was all in a day’s work," concluded the story.

Entirely absent from the SABC’s story, however, was the conduct of the ANC group outside the building, who attacked some residents. It was alleged one of them had shouted a profanity at the crowd. Police were on the scene but did not act, either with regard to the assaults or to the ANC’s two-hour systematic destruction of the banner.

EWN reported "Chaos as ‘Zuma must fall’ billboard comes down". The story carried various clips of ANC supporters assaulting members of the public.

In another story on EWN ran an eyewitness account from Aletta Harrison. In it, after having observed the initial confrontation, she wrote:

"Somewhat shaken by what had just happened, I returned to the front of the building where I saw another photographer who asked me if I was OK. In the fray he had been punched in the face by one of the ANC supporters and his glasses had been smashed. He said when he asked the man why he had hit him, he was told: ‘Because you’re white’."

The account carries a video clip of the ANC group, with one member at the back shouting and pointing: "Go back to where you came from, you don’t belong here!"

In a later story, TimesLive interviewed a number of the residents.

Cleaner Charmaine Vos is quoted as saying, "I thought they were going to break the door down. I stood in the corner because I was scared. When I looked over the balcony, I started shaking and trembling because I was in shock. Police stood around like puppets doing nothing. Nothing like this has happened in the 22 years that I’ve been here."

It was reported elsewhere that Sotashe had issued an ultimatum to the city on leaving, warning that the rest of the banner should be immediately removed. "We are giving you 24 hours to clear this thing here. Next time when we come here it’s not going to be nice."

The City of Cape Town said the conduct of the ANC would also be referred to the South African Police Service for investigation.

It is unclear what has come of the investigation. Despite the raft of video evidence available online, apparently no one has been charged.

In the days that followed the incident, the ANC continued to lay blame on the DA.

In a subsequent statement, ANC chief whip Stone Sizani would claim, "The DA has been pulling all the stops to defend and justify racism and promotion of apartheid amongst its membership, and has thus sought to create an expensive stunt to deflect from the negative attention it has been suffering."

Later in the same statement he argued, "It is clear that there was a conspiracy between the DA-governed Metro and the company that put up the illegal banner, with the city turning a blind eye and publicly acting outraged by the illegal erection."

The SACP too would make similar claims. In an article, titled "‘#ZumaMustFall’ campaign finds its origins from the DA", SACP Western Cape provincial spokesperson, writing in his "personal capacity", said the banner represented, "another desperate attempts to delegitimise Peoples’ Power".

However, he took the matter possibly to its ultimate conclusion, stating: "As we join the puzzle together, it is difficult to ignore a possibility of a collaboration of domestic and foreign hand, whose primary aim is to destabilise SA. These attempts target Cape Town, a capital of ‘White Supremacy’ as an entry point of ‘Regime Change’ agenda."

It has been difficult to get comment from the individual or individuals responsible for the banner itself. We know only that they have done this before.

Independent Outdoor Media’s Brent Dyssell, the owner of the space on which the billboard was hung, would say in an interview the banner was "nothing more than a social message that was being communicated through freedom of expression, which is a constitutional recognised right as I understand it, in terms of the constitution".

Asked if saw "any of this coming", Dyssell replied: "Absolutely not in anyone’s wildest dreams."