JOHANNESBURG — Tens of thousands of South Africans demonstrated peacefully Friday in a national outpouring of anger at their scandal-tainted president, and a second agency lowered the country’s credit rating to junk status a week after the firing of the respected finance minister.
While concerns grew about the struggling economy and government corruption, the protests were unlikely to pose an immediate threat to President Jacob Zuma, who retains the backing of powerful factions within the ruling African National Congress party. But divisions over his conduct are growing within the party, whose moral authority — a legacy of its leading role in the fight against white minority rule— has eroded during his tenure.
Nobel laureate and anti-apartheid leader Desmond Tutu, 85 and ailing, made a rare public appearance to support the protests. His foundation posted a scathing tweet in his name: ‘‘We will pray for the downfall of a government that misrepresents us.’’
In Johannesburg, police fired rubber bullets to disperse about 100 ruling party members who were making their way toward protesters, the African News Agency reported. Separately, ruling party members assaulted several protesters participating in a march organized by the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s biggest opposition group. Other ANC members in military uniforms who had been posted outside their party headquarters helped to escort the protesters to safety.
Police in Pietermaritzburg city also fired rubber bullets to keep Zuma supporters away from a rally against him.
The Fitch agency cited political uncertainty as a factor in its decision to downgrade South Africa’s credit rating to below investment grade, days after Standard & Poor’s did the same.
Zuma’s Cabinet reshuffle, in which Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan was fired, will further discourage companies from investing in South Africa and could weaken ‘‘standards of governance and public finances,’’ Fitch said.
The National Treasury described the downgrade as a setback but said the government is committed to fiscal discipline and structural reforms aimed at boosting economic growth.